Best Albums of 2017: #25-1 (with commentary)

#25: Bjork, Utopia
More ethereal fairy music from the Icelandic pixie. (And I don’t use “fairy” lightly: just listen to the title track and tell me the flutes and strings don’t remind you of The Nutcracker.) On this outing, she’s helped by Venezuelan producer/DJ Arca, who adds some deft and off-kilter beats to the mix.
#24: Roger Waters, Is This the Life You Really Want?
Roger Waters is pissed. Profoundly pissed. Even more pissed, perhaps, than on Animals or The Wall. He applies his trademark sounds (echoing vocals and basslines, incorporated sounds, etc.) to our current political climate with striking results.
#23: The Front Bottoms, Going Grey
This is basically straightforward power pop, but it’s lifted to another level by great hooks and an interesting lead vocalist who sings in a flat, ironic voice that lends a hardcore edge to proceedings.
#22: The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions
Just another collection of catchy, singalong, power pop from the Canadian “super group.”
#21: Destroyer, ken
I find I often use the words “acquired taste” to describe bands I like. That certainly applies to Destroyer with Dan Bejar’s quirky tenor and its odd inflections, not to mention the jazz-like arrangements, strings, saxophones, etc. Things often lurch in unexpected directions.
#20: Good Downie, Introduce Yerself
One of the most touching goodbyes ever recorded (and inevitably compared to David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker). Downie recorded these songs over two sessions after his brain cancer diagnosis, and each song is addressed to a specific person (or thing, as in “The Lake”). He remembers his time in the Tragically Hip with “Love Over Money,” his first girlfriend (“My First Girlfriend”), his brother Patrick (“You Me and the B’s”), etc. The songs are simple guitar and piano arrangements. Perhaps the most affecting song is the closer “The North” with his voice quietly floating above a simple piano figure musing on the Indigenous children he met in northern Canada. (For my thoughts on Gord and the Tragically Hip, read this.)
#19: Broken Social Scene, Hug of Thunder

This is a good, but not great BSS album, which means it’s still better than most albums out there. The opening cut is a classic slice of BSS uplifting pop, with hushed female voices guiding the verses and then leading to a mass of vocals on the chorus with soaring horns and a nyckelharpa (a Norwegian viola-like instruction played by pressing pegs down).
#18: Arcade Fire, Everything Now
A good but not great Arcade Fire fire (see above!) is still pretty damn good. The whole commentary on consumerism wears thin, but it’s saved by the typically soaring music. The title track with its obvious ABBA ripoff is a great start, but it’s “Creature Comfort” where the band really hits it’s stride with growling synths and shrieking vocals. “We Don’t Deserve Love” brings it to a downbeat yet still uplifting ending.
#17: The Wild Reeds, The World We Built
Exquisite soaring harmonies from the three female singer-songwriters in this band. You’d swear they were sisters or somehow related. Reminds me of Lucious. And they wrap their pipes around beautifully crafted pop with a timeless feel.
#16: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell is one of the best songwriters out there. His songs contain terrific imagery and strongly observational lyrics often focused on the lives of those in isolated and economically depressed areas, but never falling into cliché, sympathetic without being maudlin, all produced with melodic country-rock.
#15: Margo Price, All American Made
Terrific Nashville singer-songwriter who creates deeply insightful music that’s perfect for our times. This would be on my list for the title track alone.
#14: Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile to the Surface
This a dramatic collection of alt-rock and an actual concept album built around stories in the mining town of Lead, SD.
#13: Alvvays, Antisocialites
This collection of retro pop-rock owes a big debt to the sounds of the ’60s.
#12: Mark Lanegan Band, Gargoyle
I have a total weakness for dramatic, vaguely threatening music. Mark Lanegan does this so well with his voice, urgent music, and ambiguous guitar chords.
#11: Daniel Romano, Modern Pressure
Another great “stew” of an album that pulls in influences from a wide range of music and produces something that sounds like skewed country-rock. Passionate vocals and great musicianship pull it all together.
#10: U2, Songs of Experience
<div>Unlike (too?) many people, I don’t dislike U2. They were one of my favorite bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I even walked into my wedding to “Beautiful Day.” But I have many times just wanted to scream at them, “Stop f’ing around trying to be ‘relevant’ and just make an f’ing album!” The constant angst, the changing of producers, – it just gets old. But maybe I should just shut up as their latest is just a terrific set of songs, melodic and uplifting. If I have a complaint, it’s that the use of so many producers and engineers has led to a somewhat inconsistent sound, and the feeling that at any one point, one could be listening to a song from any aspect of U2’s career. “Red Flag Day” even introduces some War-era like background vocals. Still, it’s a strong outing and I’d encourage people to get over their baggage about U2 and just listen to the music.

#9: Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
It’s hard to know how serious Josh Tillman really is. He’s taken irony to an entirely different plane. And yet somehow one can’t help but feel that beneath the public persona, the odd tweets, the rants, etc., he really does mean it. The title track alone would put this album on my list. And who else could pull off this lyric: “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” (on “Total Entertainment Forever”).

#8: Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator
Alynda Lee Segarra has immersed herself deeply in American roots music and along with her band, Hurray for the Riff Raff, become one of the top practitioners of the genre. This album is leap into another sphere, creatively and musically. She went back to her Puerto Rican and NYC roots for this incredibly timely concept album about a Nuyorican moving through American life. Great storytelling songwriting and the musical palate adds considerable Latin influence to reflect the story.

#7: Elbow, Little Fictions
Kind of like a modern, low-key version of prog-rock: complex arrangements and superb musicianship, and yet somehow accessible and melodic. The lead singer sounds like a mid-career version of Peter Gabriel.

#6: Portugal, The Man, Woodstock
By far the best thing to come out of Wasilla, Alaska, almost making up for Wasilla’s other export. Soul, funk, and rock all blend together into a creative and melodic stew.

#5: alt-j, Relaxer
Still one of the most creative bands out there. Take opening track “3WW,” which turns a conventional English folk song on its head with quiet electronic percussion, a triling acoustic guitar and soft spoken vocals. Then things switch into their trademark sudden time signature and musical changes on “In Cold Blood.”

#4: Beck, Colors
Just more incredibly crafted, funky, danceable, upbeat, creative Beck Pop

#3: Zola Jesus, Okovi
Nicole Hummel (aka Zola Jesus) possess an incredible highly operatic voice that she uses to ride over orchestral electronics. This is big, grinding, deep and dramatic music.

#2: St Vincent, Masseduction

In which Annie Clark goes (almost but not quite) mainstream. It’s beautifully crafted and accessible, but with more than enough quirkiness and creativity to lift it well above the usual pop fare.

#1: Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up

Sublime. Absolutely sublime. Robin Pecknold and crew throw a lot of musical genres and traditions into the pot, and out comes something that sounds like nothing else. There is quite simply no one out there making music remotely like this. There is more than a passing resemblance to classical music in the complex titles and arrangements. Take opening track “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar.” Pecknold’s voice starts out in a lower register, so low that it’s difficult to hear. Then the band crashes in with ringing guitar and piano and a different voice takes over.

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