Favorite Albums of 2017

This year was an extraordinarily strong year for music, so much so that ranking my top 10 favorites was not an easy feat. That said, I included a supplementary 11-20 for some of my favorites from this year. I have linked to some of the reviews for some of those records below. Enjoy!

1. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

How do you describe an album that feels like a living document? A Deeper Understanding balances the line of immaterial and extraordinary weight, songs that feel huge in their emotion, sound and place, but have an incredible quality of reshaping themselves with every listen. The War on Drugs fourth album feels familiar – Dire Straits guitars, heartland rock propulsion with a Don Henley-esque delivery, but it’s not a tribute to those things. There’s something about it that combines these elements and infuses them with a feeling that’s impossible to explain without hearing. Frontman/mastermind Adam Granduciel labored for years combining synths, guitars, bass and drums that effortlessly weave into each other. Whether it’s the shimmering guitars that open “Pain,” the dramatic landscape of “Thinking of a Place,” or the E-Street Band-iness of “Holding On,” it runs the gamut of human emotion: It’s pensive, driving, achingly sad and at many points, euphoric.

Pick any of these instruments or emotions and follow the thread. Then replay the song and pick something else to immerse in. It’s a revelatory, choose-your-own-adventure listen. A Deeper Understanding is an album about feeling, understanding and exploring. It’s a prism that refracts its light in endless directions. No matter the approach, no two experiences will ever be the same.

2. Japandroids – Near to The Wild Heart of Life

Here’s the thing – Japandroids were never going to make another Celebration Rock, and it would be foolish to think they were going to in the first place, if ever make another record at all. After five years, what we did get was Near to the Wild Heart of Life, the third in the line of great Japandroids albums.

The production is larger and the songs have a sense of space not found on previous Japandroids records. The album still has plenty of the fiery romanticism and the hooks that made the band so irresistible, but there is simple separation in the sounds to take that all in. There’s prominent synthesizers, acoustic guitars –just small touches that show the band was creating distance from the bash-and-blaze chaos of the first two albums. In a sense, Near to the Wild Heart of Life reminds us of some truths that we all eventually face. Everything is constantly changing. Right now is the youngest you’ll ever be. Eventually, we have to all take chances if we want evolve. Sure, the album is not perfect, and some experiments don’t work. That sounds like life. It won’t bring us back to the time where we felt infinite. But when it’s over, it’s a small reminder to keep going in hope that next day will be better than the last. That in itself is a victory – at this moment in time, that is exactly what we need.

3. Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights

On 2015’s Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker somehow was able to reinvent what it is what a songwriter can do with guitar and voice. Two years later on her follow up Turn Out The Lights, there’s a little more experience under her belt, but her songs – deep meditations on spirituality, mental health, relationships – and simply what it means to exist – pack an even stronger emotional wallop with the simple addition of piano, woodwinds and strings. “Appointments,” the album’s meditative first single hits an unforgettable climax, revealing an expressiveness in her voice not previously heard in her songs. The album’s title track continues this feels like it could be a full-throated punk ballad, but the guitar’s ambience bypasses that and sends it into the stratosphere. But it’s those moments that reveal an intense vulnerability that are the album’s best. “Hurt Less,” is a gorgeous piano ballad with backing vocals by her Forrister bandmate Matthew Gilliam. It’s a song about losing someone important and having to live with it.

Baker sings, “I just don’t want to be alone/And as long as you’re not tired yet/of talking, it helps to make it hurt less.” Julien Baker’s ability to take her emotions and filtering them with intense focus is only scratching the surface of what she’s capable of as a songwriter Take a seat. You’ll be grateful you did.

4. Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow

Released under a year after last year’s magnificent Heart Like a Levee (and the deluxe edition bonus album Vestapol), M.C. Taylor and company return with a looser sounding collection of songs than the more pristine sounds of its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s any less gorgeous. Opener “Jenny of the Roses” kicks things off rather breezily, but sets the tone pretty quickly as he sings, apparently quoting the subject of the song: “I’ve never been/Afraid of the darkness/it’s just a different kind of light.” This theme continues with “Lost Out in the Darkness,” buoyed by an insistent kick drum and choppy acoustic guitars. Harmonica bleeds in and out of the song as Taylor sings something that sounds optimistic – “I’ve been waiting for you patiently/I’m trying to be hopeful for you, brother” and “If you carry the good news/show me/I’ve been looking for a sign down among us.” Hiss Golden Messenger crafted a record to be the balm for a persistent burn. It is not a record made as a reaction to terrible times, instead it is a beautiful example of creating great art in spite of them. What it says is that we’re all in this together, moving forward and doing the best we can. That, truly, is Hallelujah Anyhow.

5. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Annie Clark’s fifth record under the St. Vincent name again blows the debate wide open as to if she’s created her best record. Each record seems to build on the last, and this one might somehow be the most obtuse and accessible yet. It’s a diverse collection of neon-hued pop – the slinky “Los Ageless”, title track “Masseduction” with the lyrics “I can’t turn off what turns me on” to the devastating “Happy Birthday Johnny” and piano ballad “New York”. The arrangements are just as dense as they have been on previous releases, but here they feel streamlined and tighter. Highfalutin it is not. It’s St. Vincent, David Bowie and sex filtered through hell.

6. The Smith Street Band – More Scared of You Then You Are of Me

Over three albums, The Smith Street Band, a Melbourne-based foursome have earned fans with emotionally unguarded songwriting that tiptoes the line between from totally moving to pure euphoria. Frontman Wil Wagner has never been one to pull punches with his confessional songwriting. On their fourth album, More Scared of You Than You Are of Me, Wagner and the band doubles down, creating their best record yet. On the unforgettable “Birthdays,” Wagner spells out his feelings pretty clear: “And I’ll be intense/And I’ll be too much/And I’ll get too high/And I’ll get too drunk/But in between episodes/I will love you more than anyone you have ever known” – it’s a perfect encapsulation of starting something new but setting expectation early. Those are things that sound scary in theory, but through the lens of a new relationship, their impact is dulled.

Immediately after is “Death to the Lads,” a shitkicking rocker with one of the most over-the-top hair-metal guitar solos in a punk song in recent memory. This is a band with a mastery of dynamic shifts – starting with the pensive light guitars that bloom into a march on “Passiona,” or the atmospheric “Run Into The World” where the band gets some vocal help from Laura Stevenson and Tim Rogers, many songs on the album seem to tide with Wagner’s full-throated delivery. But some of the most fascinating moments are when they step outside the box. The album’s closing track, “Laughing (Or Pretending To Laugh)”, is a classic New York story that finds Wagner with far more tender deliver. It feels like he’s letting us on a secret. The song never explodes, just gently crests, while he sings “And just because I’ve got a lot to learn/Does not mean that I am inherently a piece of shit/Just because I don’t think I know everything/Doesn’t mean that I don’t know anything”. Sure, he’s talking to someone specific, but it’s a good lesson to learn. With just a little foresight, tomorrow’s another chance to be better than yesterday.

7. Craig Finn – We All Want The Same Things

I’m obviously very close to this project, so I’ll make it brief. It’s the strongest solo record yet from CF – he has found a very game collaborator in Josh Kaufman. The songs feel lush and full, stories that hit hard where they need to. Tracks like the flute accented “Preludes” and “Be Honest” contain some of his best lines (“My password is be honest/my network is evolved,” while the sweet wash of synths on “Birds Trapped in the Airport” hint at a sound that couldn’t have been dreamt of from the sound of Hold Steady records. But all of this centers around the all-time great “God in Chicago,” a sad meditation that’s less song as it is story, exploring the aftermath of loss. Just listen to it and let the feelings wash over you.

8. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

If you’ve followed the career of Katie Crutchfield and her albums under the name Waxahatchee, it’s clear that she never rests on her laurels. Whether it’s the lo-fi intimacy of American Weekend, the assured full-band sound of Cerulean Salt or the atmospherics of Ivy Tripp, each record shows Crutchfield confidently adapting new elements to her sound. On her latest, Out in the Storm, Crutchfield makes Waxahatchee’s best album to date.

“Never Been Wrong,” the album’s opener, makes this abundantly clear. A distorted, plunging riff form the backbone of the song as Crutchfield’s voice takes front and center in the verse. It’s an awesome loud-quiet-loud rock song, full of driving guitars, pummeling bass and an insistent beat. Elements of Crutchfield’s earlier songwriting find a place here, albeit improved. Both “Recite Remorse” and “Sparks Fly” are built on beds of keys and percussion that wouldn’t sound out of place on Ivy Tripp, but here they feel less weightless and more grounded, something only a seasoned musician and performer could pull off. Out in the Storm is the best work from a musician and songwriter who has grown up band-by-band, album-by-album in front of an audience through much of her adult life. Everything up until this point has shown Katie Crutchfield’s ability and brilliance, its an album that represents the point when Waxahatchee’s ambition and ability and confidence run alongside one another. Where she goes next is anyone’s guess. The bar has been raised. Out in the Storm sets it high.

9. The Menzingers – After the Party

We’re in the golden age of “crisis rock,” a term I’m playfully using about bands that write songs about the fading embers of youth, crystallizing when the sun starts to set on the familiar and new responsibilities and realities take hold. On “Tellin’ Lies,” the opening track on The Menzingers latest record, they make the album’s thesis abundantly clear: “Where are we going to go when our twenties are over?”

The answer hits like a ton of bricks. After the Party is 13 songs that revive the feelings about being “in your adolescent room” rummaging “through the boxes labeled “former you”/The souvenirs of happiness in the moment” on “Your Wild Years,” the duality of living different lives to different people” “To everyone, you’re such a sweet church girl/But I know your secret” on the aptly titled “Bad Catholics,” among others. It’s a wistful, sometimes celebratory, often elegiac love letter to youth. The open-heartedness is palpable and authentic, but on “Lookers,” it feels personal. Co-vocalist Greg Barnett sings, “We were both lookers/In a 5″x8″ black and white/On the night stand of my mind/From a time I hardly recognize.” Suddenly, all those half-memories from high school and college come rushing back in full color.

10. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

After two major critical successes under his own name, Jason Isbell restores his backing band The 400 Unit to top billing on The Nashville Sound. It’s for good reason, returns, as they take more of a central role on Isbell’s songs. What’s immediate from the album is a sense of looseness in Isbell’s songwriting and the band’s playing that hasn’t really felt a part of their sound since 2011’s Here We Rest. Whereas songs on 2013’s Southeastern and its follow up, 2015’s Something More Than Free sounded great, but had a sort of insularity absent on the earlier 400 Unit albums. Album opener “Last of My Kind” fades in, as if you’re getting a glimpse of a group of people playing together in a room, as Isbell sings about being left behind by the changing world. The song picks up with subtle intensity with every verse. This naturalistic style of production is a hallmark of longtime producer Dave Cobb’s style – here, it reintroduces the The 400 Unit as, well, a unit.

“If We Were Vampires,” is an arresting duet between Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires. The song sounds gothic on title alone, it’s anything but. Essentially, it’s an acoustic ballad where Isbell and Shires ruminate on the limited time they have together while they’re alive. “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever/Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/Maybe we’ll get forty years together/But one day I’ll be gone/Or one day you’ll be gone.” It’s spare, beautiful and nothing short of a classic.

“Anxiety” is a seven-minute epic about just what the title suggests. The guitars are stormy and the rhythms insistent. Isbell’s lyrics may be familiar to those who struggle with it: “You got to give me a minute/Because I’m way down in it/And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak/I want to be strong and steady, always ready/Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak”. They eventually give away to a furiously strummed bridge which kicks into a wily guitar solo. The lyrics, although familiar, may be a tough sell and with many artists shouldn’t have worked, but Isbell’s earnestness and the mastery of The 400 Unit sell it. The Nashville Sound is a record that may have gotten lost in the shuffle of a glut of great 2017 releases, but it is a testament to excellent songwriting from a group in its peak.

11. Gang of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness
12. Priests – Nothing Feels Normal
13. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band
14. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
15. The National – Sleep Well Beast
16. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
17. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
18. Ted Leo – The Hanged Man
19. Sincere Engineer – Rhombithian
20. The World Is A Beautful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Always Foreign


What I’m Listening To: October 2017

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice: This album between the Melbourne-based Barnett and the Philly-based Vile is a minor work in both of their catalogues, but it’s a lot of fun. There’s a few playful originals – “Over Everything” and “Continental Breakfast” – covers of each other’s songs – Vile’s “Peepin’ Tomboy” becomes “Peepin’ Tom” here, similarly, “Out of the Woodwork” is graced with Vile’s signature drawl (and some great Barnett backing vocals). The covers are great too – Barnett’s cover of her partner Jen Cloher’s “Fear is Like a Forest” and the album-closing take of Belly’s 1993 track “Untogether”. It’s a fun, unserious record that somehow only feels like it could come from these two. It’s a hang you’ll want to feel a part of.

St. Vincent – Masseduction: Annie Clark’s fifth record under the St. Vincent name again blows the debate wide open as to if she’s created her best record. Each record seems to build on the last, and this one might somehow be the most obtuse and accessible yet. It’s a diverse collection of neon-hued pop – the slinky “Los Ageless”, title track “Masseduction” with the lyrics “I can’t turn off what turns me on” to the devastating “Happy Birthday Johnny” and piano ballad “New York”. The arrangements are just as dense as they have been on previous releases, but here they feel streamlined and tighter. Highfalutin it is not. It’s St. Vincent, David Bowie and sex filtered through hell.

Margo Price – All American Made: Price’s 2016 album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter positioned the Aledo, Illinois native as one of brightest country stars with a sound that hews towards traditional twang with lyrics that convey personal heartbreak and devastation. Here, the tone is a little more political, as there are songs that confront sexism and wage inequality. It’s an assured LP, a great new chapter in her story – “A Little Pain,” “Weakness” (the title track from the EP of the same name from earlier this year) as well as tone-perfect duet with Willie Nelson called “Learning to Lose” are standouts. Every new Margo Price record unfolds her story just a little more. We learn as she does.

Hiss Golden Messenger Find Hope in the Dark on Hallelujah Anyhow

It’s hard to feel good about the world right now for a variety of reasons. Take your pick: politics, natural disasters and the simple passage of time claiming many of our heroes are just a few examples. It would be easy to be resigned and depressed about all of this, but thankfully there are reminders of some light peering through the darkness. M.C. Taylor seems to think that, or that’s the idea you get on Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest album, Hallelujah Anyhow.

Released under a year after last year’s magnificent Heart Like a Levee (and the deluxe edition bonus album Vestapol), Taylor and company return with a looser sounding collection of songs than the more pristine sounds of its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s any less gorgeous. Opener “Jenny of the Roses” kicks things off rather breezily, but sets the tone pretty quickly as he sings, apparently quoting the subject of the song: “I’ve never been/Afraid of the darkness/it’s just a different kind of light.” This theme continues with a song succinctly titled “Lost Out in the Darkness,” buoyed by an insistent kick drum and choppy acoustic guitars. Harmonica bleeds in and out of the song as Taylor sings something that sounds optimistic – “I’ve been waiting for you patiently/I’m trying to be hopeful for you, brother” and “If you carry the good news/show me/I’ve been looking for a sign down among us.

The instrumentation feels more like a delivery device for Taylor’s searching than it has previously – there’s simply much more that needs to be heard this time. It’s an album that’s feels like shades of color than a progression of sound. The songs here sooth in their autumnal hues – “Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind,” and “Domino (Time Will Tell)” feel like sunsets, and “John the Gun” reappears here, revived from a serene acoustic take first found on Vestapol, fleshed out with an awesome full band arrangement.

There are also moments on the album that strike familiar tones. Multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook’s piano flourishes combined with soft horn hits and the roughhewn texture of Taylor’s voice lends itself to some irresistible Van Morrison comparisons, especially on “Harder Rain”. The song carries the intimacy and romance of people playing in a room together. It doesn’t break as much as it crests, building to a dewy crescendo. You can almost feel the collaborators looking to each other where to go next.

The album’s finest moment is it’s last – the instant-classic “When the Wall Comes Down”. It’s unclear if Taylor is referincing about that wall, but moments here feel more like advice than political statement. “What you oughta do is let it lie,” Taylor says. Then some more advice. “Step back, Jack, from the darkness.” Taylor is talking about being hopeful when there’s something in your way. “It’s a beautiful world but painful, child/Tear it down.” He’s right.

Hiss Golden Messenger group has crafted something to be a balm for a persistent burn. It is not a record made as a reaction to terrible times, instead it is a beautiful example of creating great art in spite of them. What it says is that we’re all in this together, moving forward and doing the best we can. That, truly, is Hallelujah Anyhow.

Halleujah Anyhow is out today on Merge.

The National Shake Things Up on Sleep Well Beast

When you talk about a new album by The National, there’s a few concessions you make. You’re not really stressing sound and progression but you do detail the mood and intensity. They’re a band of Midwestern men, two sets of brothers, and a guy that has a brother (as the excellent 2014 documentary Mistaken For Strangers shows), that define themselves by both their creative and personal tensions. They progress in inches, not leaps. Well, that is until now. Sleep Well Beast feels somewhat like a sonic redefinition.

While each record from 2005’s Alligator felt like a deeper descent into an emotional and sonic black hole, there’s an electricity that runs through their latest that feels like a band reacting against their darker impulses. Opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” creeps up on you – Berninger sings like he’s telling a secret, backed by nocturnal percussion and string swells. It’s a beautiful, but odd opener, as the pulsating “Day I Die” kicks into gear. The balance feels off The band experiments with synths and guitar solos all over the place – including the ripshit “Turtleneck”. The National have not made a song that has let Berninger go this loose on record since “Abel”. The guitars are nervy and suspenseful. It’s going to sound awesome live.

The three song run of “Guilty Party,” “Carin at the Liquor Store,” and “Dark Side of the Gym” are some of the most gorgeously staggering songs that the band has put together about love and relationships. “Guilty Party” talks about a failing relationship, while “Carin at the Liquor Store” is a piano ballad that’s apparently about guitarist Aaron Dessner’s mother-in-law that passed away during recording. “Dark Side of the Gym” has ‘wedding song’ written all over it, Berninger, evokes Renaissance imagery as he sings in duet with Irish singer Lisa Hannigan: “I have dreams of anonymous castrati/Singing to us from the trees/I have dreams of a first man and a first lady/Singing to us from the sea“. It’s language ripe for a first dance.

Despite these high points – there are some moments that don’t feel right. The intro to “I’ll Still Destroy You” feels a little out of place, perhaps like an Amnesiac-era Radiohead outtake, as well as the first single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, has a lot going on – keys, guitar stabs and some synth hits. It’s also got sickly-sweet guitar solo which is the best part of the song, mainly because they are rarely, if ever heard on National albums.

At its core, Sleep Well Beast is a very good album by The National. The band backed itself against the wall with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, hewing a little too close to the sound they’d cultivated with their previous three albums. It’s the sound of a band taking chances with an established formula, spreading out and showing that after nearly twenty years together they can find ways to create something deeply engaging.
Is it the album to start a new fan with? No. Is it a worthy addition to their catalog? Certainly. They have consistently made records that try to top one another. Perhaps they have yet to create their best. If anything, Sleep Well Beast shows that all bets are off. Keep listening.

Sleep Well Beast is out now on 4AD.

LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream is a Remarkable Return

LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has always been obsessed with aging, the process thereof, and the self-awareness of coming that you are no longer the cool person in the room. One of LCD’s most enduring songs, “Losing My Edge” – is about that. I’m a few months away from being 32, the same age when he wrote that song. I get it. I’m still heavily involved in being a music fan when many of my peers have turned their attention elsewhere. Even with that, the pulse of pop culture is evaporating under my fingertips. We live in an era of ‘everything now,’ but culture now moves so quickly, it’s almost impossible to decode the latest meme without a Google search or find yourself realize that you’re technically old enough to be the parent of some of the artists in the Billboard Top 100.

Then, of course, “I was there”. I love to gloat that I was at the ‘final’ LCD Soundsystem show at Madison Square Garden. The documentary of the final show, titled Shut Up and Play The Hits, is a defining moment in rock history, sort of a next gen version of The Last Waltz. It was a four hour long show, a sort of euphoria mixed with a wry sadness. In essence, it was a really big Irish wake. Hearing last year that the group was reforming, I couldn’t help feeling a little put off by it. But it wasn’t without precedent – even The Band mostly got back together after The Last Waltz. The difference here is that they never truly released an album that stood next to their classic material. But with American Dream, LCD Soundsystem managed to.

Released today, the album is not exactly about that, but there are parts of it that show a wisened Murphy bringing the sounds of his youth to the forefront. Many of songs on this album are reminiscent so much of Robert Fripp or coke-era Bowie – a sound that somehow hasn’t been strip-mined within an inch of it’s life – recast as a way to transmit Murphy’s state of mind.

As with any LCD Soundsystem album, there are endless quips that strike with their *realness* – take “Emotional Haircut” for example: “You got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete/And you got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat,” or on “Tonite” which sounds the closest thing like a paint-by-numbers LCD song as it gets before Murphy observes – “Everybody’s singing the same song/It goes tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight/I never realized these artists thought so much about dying”.

Dying. The album’s most emotional moment is the 12-minute closer “Black Screen” which is clearly about Murphy’s friendship with David Bowie during his final years. Murphy contributed elements to Bowie’s final album Blackstar. Words here really can’t do it justice. Listen to it in a quiet space when you’re alone. It may be the most vulnerable Murphy has ever sounded on record.

American Dream is an album that in no way sounds like a rehash. Even the songs that sound like “Classic LCD” have an undercurrent that places them out of time. The themes that Murphy sings about might be similar, but make no mistake, this is a band that has been somewhere, has grown older and better. By all accounts, they’re here to stay. May we all accept aging and the evolution of “cool” as well as they have. What a great example to have. By all accounts, they’re here to stay. May we all accept aging and the evolution of “cool” as well as they have. What a great example to have.

American Dream is out today on Columbia.

Coming Closer with The War On Drugs A Deeper Understanding

My first experience with The War On Drugs is in 2009 when I saw them open up five times for The Hold Steady. They had just released Wagonwheel Blues, a promising, if not wholly remarkable debut. Adam Granduciel quickly identified me night-to-night as “Phillies shirt guy” because of the shirt I wore one of the nights. He and Dave Hartley and their drummer at the time signed my copy of the LP. I saw Adam play with Kurt Vile the next few years, was surprised by the release of 2011’s Slave Ambient, and watched the band skyrocket on the heels of 2014’s brilliant Lost in the Dream. It’s been remarkable to watch a band like that come full circle, but nothing could prepare for the release of their latest, A Deeper Understanding.

To put it bluntly: this is a really special album. It’s both accessible and ethereal, somehow operating as both a passive listen and intensely rewarding for much more detailed listeners. I keep playing it over and over, revealing bits I simply missed before. How often is an album both good for the passivity of a long drive but dense enough for headphone listening? There are moments that exist here that you don’t really notice until you focus, sort of like when you focus on taking a deep breath. You’re always *doing* it, but not until you take time to really concentrate, it’s then you are cognizant of the process.

A Deeper Understanding is an album that passes through your body with each inhale and exhale, with an ability to make you feel *something*. Sometimes that feeling that doesn’t always have a word to describe it. It envelopes you in sound, feeling heavy without the properties of being solid. Maybe that’s not for you, but damn if it’s not remarkable that something like this can exist today, when there are so many options to blunt those feelings. It invites you to come close, to be intimate, and reminds you what it’s like to be alive.

A Deeper Understanding is out now on Atlantic.