My Top 10 Albums Of 2017

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On last year’s Top Albums of 2016 list I made a brave prediction that we were on the cusp of a “Rock Awakening”. Well that awakening didn’t quite happen yet in 2017 – it’s a big, wide cusp – but if you looked closely Rock still grew and evolved in many ways, with all kinds of new sounds and meanings bubbling up from the street. When I look for great new albums I look for three things: Is it any good? Does it bring something new to the table? Is there a wide range of sound and emotion on it? All of these albums met the first criteria, and most of them met the other two. I guess we could say that the great Awakening continues.

 

10. Alt-J – Relaxer

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There’s a fine line between bold musical exploration and self-indulgent wankery, and sometimes I’m not even sure what side of the line Alt-J falls on. But I do think they’ve come up with one of the more distinctive sounds of 2017, a strange and wonderful blend of progressive Rock, chill electronica beats and acoustic folk. I am always impressed by artists who are as comfortable in an electronic setting as they are among acoustic instruments, and Alt-J seems to be equally fluent in both musical languages. The combination of the acoustic guitar with the electronic beat on “3WW” is hypnotizing and magical, making you feel like you’ve been spiritually cleansed in a shamanic ritual, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

 

9. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

In an era when different musical genres are quarantined into separate airtight boxes to avoid cross-contamination, LCD Soundsystem has always stood apart as an artist that cannot possibly be contained in only one box. Just like in the 1960s and 1970s when you had certain artists occupying both the Pop Charts and the R&B Charts at the same time, The Soundsystem has always been about both Rock and Dance music, alienating purists of both genres but gladdening the hearts of those who believe that Rock’s Big Tent is big enough to include a lot of different things. This album was a comeback for the band after lead man James Murphy called it quits in 2011, and they’ve come back bigger and better than ever. Murphy has a lot more to say than he did before in terms of social and political commentary, and the band rocks harder than it ever did before on tracks like “Call The Police” and “Emotional Haircut”. Echoes of Bowie and Talking Heads pepper the album, giving it a kind of cultural gravitas, and so now it’s even harder to squeeze this band into one of those useless boxes.

 

8. Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow, Bobby Previte, with Iggy Pop – Loneliness Road

Forty years ago few would have predicted that Iggy Pop would even be alive when he was 70 years old, let alone be in the middle of perhaps the most creative period of his life, but that’s exactly what’s happening to the Father of Punk Rock. 2016’s Post Pop Depression was one of the best records of the year, and among his projects in 2017, Loneliness Road was an amazing surprise. Jamie Saft is one of the new breed of Jazz musicians who were as influenced by Rock and Pop as they were by Jazz, making for some interesting and vaguely familiar melodic patterns that give off a nice contemporary vibe. He asked Iggy Pop to add some vocals for three of his trio’s new tracks and Iggy delivered big time, apparently freestyling some real earthy street poetry in his inimitable baritone, ranging from a low rumbly growl to an unbelievably soulful croon. His contributions are so quietly intense that any more than three songs would have overwhelmed the rest of this fine album.

 

7. King Krule – The Ooz

This guy is wild, for me one of the most exciting discoveries of the year. The album is full of bold, innovative stuff that doesn’t always click, but this crazy cat is out there taking some chances and trying some new things and hooray for that. I might even concede that he goes maybe too hard on sonic exploration because as we all know, too many ideas tend to muddy the waters. The album begins with something like literate British rap, then it proceeds to take off in all directions. Over here we’ve got a jazz shuffle with a great saxophone solo, and over there there’s an acoustic folk-punk number drenched in a psychedelic drone. King Krule is a savvy British working class street poet like a bizarro Billy Bragg, spinning gritty tales of alienation and decay. But it’s hard to say whether the album’s unpolished edges are essential to the artist, or whether a stronger focus on coloring more inside the lines might help his big talent find greater heights someday.

 

6. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

This one doesn’t cover any new musical ground, nor is there a whole lot of variety of sound on it, but it makes my list because it’s just so dang warm and inviting and fun. Take two slacker hipster singer-songwriters from opposite sides of the planet, each very talented naturalistic artists in their own right, bring them together to write songs about writing songs, and you get the Indie Rock Sonny & Cher of the 21st Century. It’s hard to explain why it sounds so good other than pointing out the groovy relaxed feel, but it’s a definite update on the classic Folk Rock of the Seventies. Sure, there’s a big acoustic element to it, but when these two get their electric guitars jangling away it packs more life than those old folk rockers ever did.

 

5. St. Vincent – Masseduction

Well if and when that rumored Rock Awakening happens we can be sure that St. Vincent will be at the forefront of the movement. I can’t wait to hear the magic she will be creating 10, 20, 30 years down the line, but that’s getting ahead of things. On this album the guitar virtuoso relies more on 80s-style synths, acoustic pianos and a string section to serve her songs, barely using her custom axe at all. But despite her musical chops and her arrangement wizardry, it’s the songwriting that is really starting to stand out. This is a very sexy album, and her wild incantation of the phrase “I can’t turn off what turns me on” on the title track is like a Greek chorus for modern culture these days. And my god the melodies on this record are something else. “New York” is an achingly beautiful melody that millions the world over ought to be singing, except for the fact that she placed the word “motherfucker” prominently in the chorus. But that’s St. Vincent for you, an artist that does not and will not compromise.

 

4. Filthy Friends – Invitation

Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney got together with a couple of Seattle indie all-stars and made an album that exceeded all the expectations of such an illustrious collaboration. Buck and Tucker worked together on a collection of solid, well-written songs, and Tucker became the face of the band with all the lead vocals. She is growing as a singer and finds here the sweet spot somewhere in between Patti Smith, Chrissy Hynde and Debbie Harry. A female voice seems like a perfect counterweight to Buck’s churning punk, chiming pop and punchy alt-country constructions, and the whole thing holds together beautifully. This is a bunch of Rock pros, who know what they’re doing, and who are performing at the top of their game. I’ve seen some ignorant fools call this band “Dad Rock” – every Rocker with grey hair gets this ugly epithet thrown at them nowadays – but anyone who makes this claim about this band is clearly misinformed about both Dads and Rock.

 

3. Benjamin Booker – Witness

Benjamin Booker roared onto the scene in 2014 with his eponymous debut album, a chugging, slashing collection of swampy, Southern-flavored punk. But after he became a near-victim of a racially-motivated attack in 2016, Booker had an epiphany. He decided he needed to do “more than just watch” the problem of racial inequality in the country he loved, and to lend his voice to the cause. The end result speaks for itself. The songs on Witness may have a singularity of purpose, but they are delivered in such an impressive variety of musical styles that it feels like a catalogue of the roots of Rock. There is gospel, 60s soul, heavy blues, acoustic blues, psychedelia-tinged rock plus a couple of punky rock & roll numbers for good measure. Booker’s message is more wistful than angry, more hopeful than preachy, and his gravelly soulful voice makes it all sound so heartfelt and honest and true.

 

2. Queens Of The Stone Age – Villains

The next time some has-been makes the ridiculous statement that “Rock is dead”, I think they ought to be strapped to a chair and made to listen to this album. It would definitely make them rethink their spurious claim. This is the evolution of Heavy Rock in 2017, and it simply doesn’t get any better than this. Lead man Josh Homme is a Rock genius, a guy who has clearly absorbed many different historic expressions of Rock’s power and updated the category with originality and top-end kick-ass. He brings an advanced sense of songcraft to the task, including not just great lyrics and melody, but the ability to skillfully add transitional sections, instrumental breaks and finely-layered harmonies that makes every song flow better. And the contributions of British super-producer Mark Ronson made the band’s razor-sharp precision hum with electricity. You wanna Rock, this is how it’s done, folks.

 

1. Feist – Pleasure

The knowledge that she could never duplicate the international commercial success of her 2007 masterpiece The Reminder seems to have had a liberating effect on Leslie Feist. Having already climbed the mountain of big-time, she has felt free to set her sights on a bigger artistic challenge, the mountain of Truth. On Pleasure Feist not only seeks answers for an inquisitive heart, but she also takes on some much bigger fish like the genetic imperative that drives desire, or our cosmological insignificance in the universe. But it is all firmly rooted in humanity – the messy, unpolished humanity we all inhabit – thanks to Feist’s trademark musical style, a soulful raggedy rawness disguising a skillful musical complexity. This is a great album that gets better with each spin.

 
Photo (Feist): By Jason Persse (Flickr: Feist) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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