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Best of 2017

January 4, 2018

Ever since I started this blog in the fall of 2011 I have been doing a “best of” music list (albums) annually.  This is a highly personal list – it is albums released in 2017 that caught my attention and in most cases motivated me enough to write a review/blog post.  I have stated before that I don’t write bad record reviews – I don’t feel any need to trash an album.  If I am going to make the effort to write a review, it is going to be for an album I like and that I want to recommend. If I wrote a post on an album, I liked the album and given I don’t post that much, it is pretty likely to end up on year-end “best of” list.  Except for my album of the year, this list is not in any order of preference.  There are a few random notes at the end too.  In general the links are to the original post.

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Mavis Staples- If All I Was Was Black – This was a Jeff Tweedy/Wilco year for me.  Jeff Tweedy released a solo album, I saw Wilco live, in what may have been their best show I have ever seen (I have seen them close to 10 times over the years), they did a magnificent re-release of their first two albums and this Mavis Staples album that Jeff Tweedy produced.  This is their third album collaboration and it works the best. As I stated in my original post:

Tweedy and Staples get so deep into this collaboration, that on their duet “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” you can barely tell their voices apart. They are not impersonating each other, it is synchronicity.

Howard Wales and Jerry Garcia – Side Trips: Volume One (Live) is yet another Garcia live date I have added to my collection – I must have about 25 Garcia solo albums – and most are live albums.  This is Garcia playing jazz rock fusion and he pulls it off amazingly well.  This is an older recording that was first released on CD in 1998 and was re-released as a Black Friday Record Store Day release on vinyl in 2017.

Per jerrygarcia.com:

From 1970 to 1972, Jerry Garcia and keyboardist Howard Wales played together around the bay area and on the east coast. It was usually instrumental—a jazz session with a lot of other influences thrown in. Sometimes they played as a trio, including Bill Vitt on drums, and other times a bassist, such as Richard Favis or John Kahn, would sit in on the session. This collaboration would mark the beginning of Jerry’s twenty-five-year partnership with Kahn. For Jerry, the appeal of this outfit was the ability to play in a more relaxed context than the Dead. Wales was a serious musician, and Jerry had to work hard to keep up with him, which he would say did more for his ear than anyone else he played with.

img_4845Bob Dylan – Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 is another ambitious collection in the Bob Dylan Bootleg series.  This time the focus is on Dylan’s born again period in the late 70s/early 80s.  It was bizarre that Dylan even had a born again stage, but somehow it inspired him musically and he was at the top of his game – especially performing live – which is the bulk of this collection.  I loved this period in Dylan’s career and it was something I experienced in real-time at a formative stage of my becoming a serious music head.

This collection is blessed with one of the all time greatest liner note essays. Proud atheist and Dylan fanatic, Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame), comes to terms with how great Dylan’s Christian period was (Jillette admits he was a hater of the Christian trilogy when it was released back in the day). Jillette is candid, confessional, insightful and most of all entertaining in his essay. Here is a taste:

I am the fool who still says in his heart there is no God, but Dylan’s gospel is stronger than my lack of faith.

The full collection is not available on Spotify, but this sampler is:

img_4822Margo Price – All American Made was a worthy follow up to last year’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter Sophomore albums often are let downs, but this one is not.  From the original post:

This is no sophomore slump. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was not the work of a rookie – Price was a mature talent in her early thirties with plenty of life and musical experience when she recorded it. So, it is not surprising she has released a solid follow-up.

This was a serious contender for my album of the year.

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The Replacements – For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 is yet another collection of old unreleased live music on my list. The Replacements are one of my favorite bands and the fact they are from my home town makes them even better.  They were legendary in their live shows for sucking or being transcendent (mostly sucking) and this set is one of their rare moments of transcendence – and as a bonus it is professionally recorded.

This is a quality live recording and remarkably the boys are on good behavior and not subverting the Sire investment in a legitimate live recording. It is a nice snapshot of their catalog at that point in their career. The guitar interplay between Westerberg and Stinson is delightful. It could be argued that this was the end of The Replacements because subsequent albums became more and more Westerberg solo albums. So if you never got a chance to see them live, or if you did and you want a great souvenir, this album is highly recommend.

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The Waterboys – Out Of All This Blue – Every once in a while you forget how much you once liked a band.  Often bands you once loved have disappeared off the face of the earth.  This year I got a double reminder that The Waterboys are great, alive and well.  This was a serious contender for my album of the year.

I have not given The Waterboys a thought or a listen in a long time. I recently went to see U2 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Sadly one of the highlights of that show was the last song played before the lads came on: The Waterboys’ “The Whole Of The Moon.” I made a note to myself to pull out This Is The Sea and give it a spin.

A couple of days later I was at Mill City Sound record store when I saw the double (and deluxe triple) LP Out Of All This Blue by The Waterboys as a new release. I did not even think The Waterboys/Mike Scott was still an active band.

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Jeff Tweedy Together At Last is a simple concept, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy does stark acoustic renditions of Wilco songs (and some other bands Tweedy is associated with).

As carefully crafted a sonic experience as Wilco is, the revelation of Together At Last is how much Wilco is ultimately Tweedy’s voice.  These songs lose nothing stripped down.  They are not better or worse, just different; amazingly not that different.  Wilco’s arrangements and players are complex and artsy (in a good way), but the privilege here is that the songs are so pure and clean.

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Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference – Kamasi Washington returned with new music in 2017, but instead of a huge multi-course meal, he served hors d’oeuvres. This little taste was far from a disappointment, in fact a snack this time around was a better choice than the big meal – I was still full since the last meal Kamasi served.  Yet another contender for my album of the year.

This EP is composed, arranged, conducted and produced by Washington. Washington is the featured soloist. Washington has great tone and his engaging phrases that can both caress and bite. He may not end up on the jazz saxophonist’s Mount Rushmore, but he has something special: the ability to musically communicate to old jazz fans like me and to millennial hip hop fans. That is pretty magical.

img_4183Arcade Fire – Everything Now – Arcade Fire is an art band that is not afraid of writing a pop song – similar to their forefathers the Talking Heads and David Bowie .  Commercially this album and tour were flops, but don’t let sales define quality – this album and its accompanying tour are top-notch.

 

https://open.spotify.com/album/1DNojVW079FU9YnAMk3Cgr

HAIM – Something To Tell You – I have few pure pop albums on this year’s list and it does not get much sweeter than this savory glob of bubble gum.

Jaco Pastorius – Truth, Liberty & Soul – is a full concert – something that was missing in Jaco’s catalog.  It is professionally recorded and captures Jaco at his best as a player, composer and band leader.

Truth, Liberty & Soul is a full concert from the Word Of Mouth tour. A New York show from 1982 recorded for a NPR program radio program called Jazz Alive.  It was recently issued as a limited Record Store Day (April 2017) three LP set. It came out digitally May 26, 2017 (as best I know it is only available on CD or to download via Apple, it is not on streaming services).

Ryan Adams – Prisoner – Adams continues to release quality material twenty years into his career.  I keep forgetting about the B-Sides album that was released as a companion to this album – I need to give that a good listen.

Each song on Prisoner reflects on love lost.  The guitars speak as much as the lyrics.  As always, Adams crafts beautiful sonic soundscapes and is a fascinating pop artist.

The Brothers Robinson – I am a longtime fan of the Black Crowes and post Crowes’ work of brothers Rich and Chris Robinson.  This year there were three releases associated with the brothers:

Magpie Salute – The eponymous named debut from Rich Robinson’s new band has lots of great covers and a nice 70s feel.  It is mostly live, but unobtrusively so.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Betty’s Self Rising Southern Blends Vol. 3 is a nice long live set.  This is the third in a series of soundboard mixes by renowned Grateful Dead engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson.

It is bluesier than their studio albums.  It is sloppier in a good way – their studio albums can be a bit too buttoned down.  It includes originals and covers.  There is more diversity to the set – the recent studio albums have been a bit too cohesive.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Barefoot In My Head – I have a half written post on this album.  That is more about my laziness than lack of enthusiasm for this fine album.  In fact, it might be their best release. From the unpublished post:

Although the CRB has yet to lay a studio turd, this sounds like their primus inter pares. With Barefoot In My Head they have crafted their most diverse, adventurous and polished album of their career. Over a hundred shows a year for seven years will either bring a band together or tear it apart. It clearly has brought this band together.

Harry Styles – Styles is the most blatantly pop artist on this list.  Despite his pedigree, Styles has crafted an album that would not have sounded out-of-place on late 70s FM radio.  This came dangerously close to being my album of the year.

On release day (May 12, 2017), I got up for a bike ride planning to listen to the new Todd Rundgren album on the ride. I noticed that Harry Styles’ solo debut was out so I decided to try it. Styles’ appearance on SNL earlier this spring impressed me.

As I pedaled and listened to the album, I was amazed.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was not this. This is sophisticated serious pop. As I listened, I thought of three Bs: Jeff Buckley, Beck and dare I say David Bowie.  The more I listen, the more influences I hear (as the Bard says: “Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you king”).

Styles does not have one of these tour de force pop voices. He has a good voice, not a great voice.  However, he has what all the great pop voices have: authentic emotional expression. When his voice hitches on the high notes of “Sign of the Times,” it is more powerful than perfection.

Laura Marling – Semper Femina – Marling continues to put out high quality contemporary folk.  I had the good fortune of seeing the tour supporting this album.  The deluxe edition of the album includes a live version of the album as a bonus.

This album is not a radical departure from her past couple of albums.  It is still subtle and folky, but it does have a little more adventurous and rich arrangements. Her voice has grown and is slightly different on each cut.

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Live from the Fox Oakland – Tedeschi Trucks Band is best consumed live and this album does a nice job documenting a recent tour. In addition to great audio, there is a solid DVD of a live show too.

Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now – I discovered McClaslin on Bowie’s Blackstar. McClaslin’s band provided the jazz feel on that album.  This is a late 2016 release, but I listened to it in early 2017.

McCaslin’s band reminds me a lot of Weather Report.  It is not derivative or imitative of Weather Report, but it is:

  • A sax and keys based combo
  • Jazz/rock fusion
  • Orchestral (with only a handful of instruments)
  • Not confined by boundaries.

At times, it sounds like LCD Sound System (“A Small Plot Of Land” – which is actually a Bowie cover), punk (e.g. FACEPLANT) and ECM fusion (most of the rest).

Flo Morrissey and Matthew E. White – Gentlewoman, Ruby Man – I had forgotten this release until I reviewed all my 2017 posts.  I re-listened and was reminded of how good it is.

I have been a Matthew E. White fan since his 2012 release Big Inner.  White has amazing pop sensibility – he is Lee Hazelwood updated for today’s ears.  I was not familiar with Flo Morrissey. This album is all covers  – some pretty famous songs and some not so famous.

This album has a great back story. White saw a review of Flo Morrissey’s album in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian (it was next to a review of White’s own album). He was intrigued and reached out to her – and the rest is history.

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – And the winner is…  This is my number one album from 2017.  Pure Comedy was a slow burn for me. It was not that I didn’t like it, it is just that I did not like it as much as the previous two FJM releases.  But over repeated listens it grew on me.  Then seeing FJM live this summer – where generous portions of the album were played – put me over the top. In the end it is my number one album because I have consistently listened to it throughout the year and it is still prominently on my playlist.

This album is one of the finest pop criticisms of contemporary culture I have heard in a long time – especially pertinent given it is not coming from a jaded baby boomer millionaire bard (depending on your definition FJM is at the tail end of Gen X or an early Millennial).

FJM has even gotten more cynical since his last album – an impressive feat.  However, these are cynical times.  Musically it is a mellower album, but not dour.  FJM continues to conjure elaborate pop arrangements.

And finally…I have a few final thoughts.

Missed the list – There were a couple of albums that caught my attention at the end of the year:

  • Vijay Iyer Sextet’s Far From Over is sophisticated yet easy to listen to jazz. Not easy-listening – easy to listen to.
  • Neil Young & Promise of the Real – The Visitor – Neil continues to pour out more material (between reissues, his archive project and new stuff) than the average fan can consume. This is one of Neil’s most diverse albums and one of the best back up bands he has ever played with (that is saying a lot).  Neil also introduced his online archive.  For now, it is free.  Neil is streaming from his catalog at the highest quality your internet connection allows (192 kHZ/24 bit of feasible).

ECM is now streaming – One of my favorite record labels finally joined streaming (and Spotify specifically) in 2017.

Stephen Hyden – I discovered Hyden’s podcast late in the year when he posted an extraordinary interview with Wilco.  He is a great interviewer and music head.

Record Rack – My wife and I like to go to craft shows and at one of them this fall we found the perfect “in rotation” record rack from craftsman Sgot B. See photo below for this amazing and perfectly designed rack.  Sgot B put some serious design thought into this beauty – it is at the perfect angle for flipping, without the LPs falling.

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Live Shows – I saw a bunch of great live shows this year.  The highlights were:

  • Lady Gaga (at the X)
  • Wilco (Palace)
  • Arcade Fire (Lollapalooza)
  • Laura Marling (First Ave)
  • Kamasi Washington (First Ave)
  • Margo Price (First Ave)
  • Bon Iver (Rock the Garden)
  • Father John Misty (Surly)
  • Sturgill Simpson (Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall)

Well that is a rap for 2017.

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From → Music Reviews

5 Comments
  1. Great list, some really intresting picks in there.

  2. I think I made notes of these already. Did I miss a take on Neil Young’s new one? Went for a 3 hr boat trip today and took one of your recommendations for the ride. I can’t get enough of Kamasi’s Epic.

    • This was a rehash if you are a loyal reader. I did nothing more with Neil beyond that short note. Kamasi rocks. He recently played Minneaolis legendary club First Ave (Purple Rain was filmed there) and rocked the house. Great entertainer too.

      • Didn’t think I saw anything else on Neil. Yeah Kamasi does it for me. A pretty special record. I seen your review of his show.

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