Out of the increasingly eclectic list of albums that makes its way into my Spotify playlists (and eventually my physical collection, wherever possible), here’s the stuff that I enjoyed the most in 2017, and that I would absolutely recommend, with no reservations, to anyone whose favorite type of music can best be described as “stuff that challenges me in some way but that is always super catchy”. (Is that not a musical genre? it should be.)
It’s that time of year again where I run through the list of songs that inspired me, entertained me, or just plain got stuck in my head for amusing reasons, more than any other songs in the last 12 months. Most of these were released in 2017. Some came out in 2016 and I either didn’t hear them until this year or didn’t come to fully appreciate them in time for last year’s list. I’ve given brief explanations and YouTube links for the Top 30. For the rest… just check the reviews where they’re linked, if you’re curious.
And as always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2017 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.
Artist: Cool Hand Luke
In Brief: An unexpected return from an artist I assumed had hung it up for good back in 2011. The new sound is a little more groove-based, but doesn’t abandon the piano-heavy indie rock sound CHL had established in their mid-career. This is a strong effort, easily on par with The Sleeping House.
Lights – Skin & Earth
So I guess this is Lights’ first concept album? The songs are supposed to follow the storyline of a comic that was published online in monthly installments leading up to the release of the full album. I haven’t dug into the comic just yet, so I can only take a guess at what sort of story these songs are telling – perhaps some sort of a relationship saga ultimately leading to betrayal? In terms of sound and subject matter, there’s not much different here from Lights’ usual synth-driven sound, which is always pleasant and youthful in nature, but which only rarely excites me these days. On this record in particular, it’s the rush of the opening number “Skydiving” that does it for me, as well as the more aggressive, guitar-driven “Savage” and the R&B-tinted ballad “New Fears”, the latter of which is honestly one of her most vulnerable and best-written songs. The rest is mostly forgettable, unfortunately – for upbeat dance-pop, it often feels like it’s just not hitting as hard as it ought to, which makes this Light’s mellowest record, if only by a matter of small degrees.
Cool Hand Luke – Cora
I honestly didn’t expect Cool Hand Luke to put out any more albums after Mark Nicks, the sole remaining member of the band, put out Of Man as his farewell release before heading off to seminary in 2011. His first album back, while not as directly Biblical as that stunning study of Christ’s final days on Earth, is an intriguing one, embracing dance and electronic overtones on several tracks, which makes the bass grooves stand out first and foremost on quite a few of them. Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would fit an act who has traditionally sung about weighty themes of faith and conviction, but there’s still a bit of rock edge to some of it as well as the expected piano ballads, so this is more of an augmentation of the CHL sound rather than a complete genre-hop. The lyrics in the more “playful” songs actually do manage to justify the experimentation, and ultimately, while this is still more of a record you’d put on to have deep thoughts to rather than to dance to, it accomplishes what it sets out to pretty well.
Marah in the Mainsail – Bone Crown
Once I got used to the extremely gravelly vocals of Austin Durry, I found that I really enjoyed Marah in the Mainsail’s overall aesthetic on their first album, Thaumatrope. Apparently that was a concept album and I didn’t even realize it. Their follow-up is more obviously thematic, with the songs all being about various woodland creatures engaged in a fight for dominance. I love the presence of horns on a few of these tracks – they add a nice dimension to the band’s sound that makes some of the more “battle-oriented” songs feel especially urgent. One of my chief complaints about Thaumatrope was that they had a female vocalist in the band but didn’t seem quite sure how to use her for more than the occasional backing vocal and one track where she sang lead. Here, she plays more directly off of Austin, singing lead on a handful of tracks that feel like they have a reason to portray events from the point of view of a character that needs her voice instead of his. I have some minor issues with the production making some of the softer and eerier moments here difficult to appreciate when you’re not wearing headphones, but aside from that, this is a really solid listen. Throw The Decemberists, The Last Bison, and mewithoutYou into a blender, and you’d get something sorta like this, I guess.
Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love
I’m just gonna say this even if it might be an unpopular opinion: I liked Passion Pit a lot more during that brief window of time (basically their second album Gossamer) when they felt more like a band than a solo project. I can’t blame Michael Angelakos for following his muse, even if he had to let go of pretty much all of his bandmates to do it, and since I appreciate his honesty where issues such as mental health are concerned, I can’t make a convincing argument for why his music should continue to be more commercial and label-driven. As an artist, he’s better off doing what he wants to do without any artificial parameters placed on it. And I admire his decision to release an album largely made up of “first drafts” that he didn’t have to slave over in the studio forever and ever, available free of charge to an audience whose attention he cares about much more than he does their money. With that said, a lot of these songs are even more obnoxious and ineffectual than some of the tracks that were already pushing the limits of my patience on Kindred. You don’t go into a Passion Pit record without having a high level of tolerance for falsetto vocals and a wide array of neon-colored, high-pitched noises. I certainly understand that much by now. But on this one, where a number of the tracks are largely instrumental and based more around sampling than any conventional song structure, it’s an endurance test even for me, despite the album only being 35 minutes long. I can appreciate Angelakos as a man trying to work through personal struggles with his art, offering his life as an open book for anyone who might benefit from listening in. But as a musician, he gets on my last damn nerve.
Derek Webb – Fingers Crossed
Speaking of albums that are endurance tests… I think Derek Webb has officially entered what I like to call “The Father John Misty Zone” with this one. I’ve always been intrigued by what Webb has to say, even if sometimes the music (which is a combination of mostly downbeat folk music and a little bit of electronica) can be a little on the dry side. This one’s got 13 tracks, several stretching past the five minute mark, and it’s over an hour long as a result. Considering the unrelenting darkness and cynicism stemming from some of the worst years of Derek’s life that transpired between his last album and this one, it’s a formidable set of songs that takes a lot of courage for me to even approach. I don’t want to say that this album is solely about the extramarital affair he got caught red-handed in that led to his divorce from Sandra McCracken in 2014 and the apparent persona non grata status he’s had in the music industry he once called home since then, but it clearly informs a lot of the dark days and difficult questions he ponders here. He’s completely uncensored on this one, so if his use of a few mild-to-medium-strength profanities on past albums bothered you, you’re gonna want to steer clear for that and a few other reasons as well. The struggle I have when listening to this one is to what extent I should feel compassion for Derek as he goes through an apparent crisis of faith leading him to wonder if he was never truly one of God’s chosen, or whether those who have criticized his actions and apparently cut off all fellowship with him were doing so in defense of a wife and family whom he wounded very deeply, even though he’s expressed remorse for doing so. It’s good for music to challenge me, so I think it’s worth the effort to try to understand the anguish he’s communicating here (often quite poetically, though sometimes rather harshly), even if I think to some extent he’s sleeping in a bed he’s made for himself, and this doesn’t constitute a believable reason for lashing out at God. I’m not gonna lie – this is a rather soul-crushing listen, and because of that, I’ve only made it through this one twice thus far.
Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
QOTSA is one of those bands that I want to like, due to the heaviness and slight campiness of their sound. It feels like they’re one of the few straight-up rock bands still enjoying a fair amount of mainstream success these days. But for some reason, even when they’re trying to be more upbeat, even a bit dance-y as they are on this Mark Ronson-produced set of songs, the songs feel a bit too stifled, too labored over to truly bust out of their cages and be the menacing monstrosities the band seems to want them to be. I hear some solid riffs throughout this record, some catchy grooves, some interesting math-y rhythmic detours, and the occasional more progressive song structure. Maybe even a few lyrics that amuse or intrigue me here or there. I can’t say any of it’s bad. It’s just that none of it excites me all that much.
St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
I can’t decide if it’s just my own personal hangups that make the inherent sexuality in a lot of St. Vincent’s songwriting come across as off-putting, or if it’s an effect she’s deliberately going for. Some might be tempted to label her as indie rock’s answer to Lady Gaga, but I think it’s more a case of both women paying tribute to personal heroes like David Bowie in their music. This album feels more immediately “grabby” in the pop hook department than either of her last two did (though it wasn’t for lack of trying on either of those), and when it works, as on “Pills”, “Los Ageless”, and “Sugarboy”, those hooks stay in my head for days. There’s more of a sharp contrast between the glammy, bouncy rockers and the ballads on this album, with the sad story “Happy Birthday, Johnny” as a standout, and the more piano-driven “New York” being a potential tear-jerker… if only she hadn’t ruined a passionate farewell to the aforementioned musical hero with her repeated use of the big M-F bomb. Sometimes I feel like she’s got something genuinely intriguing to say; at other times I feel like she’s just trying to get a rise out of her audience, and maybe that’s just me still being more of a prude than I want to admit, but it keeps a lot of St. Vincent’s music at arm’s length for this listener.
Kevin Max – Serve Somebody EP
Kevin Max as a solo artist has always been rather erratic in terms of his output, but especially so following his brief stint with Audio Adrenaline, where he can’t seem to decide between two potential personas: “aloof teller of dystopian science-fiction tales” and “straightforward crooner serving up the classics to win back the crowd”. He’s always worn his influences on his sleeve, but perhaps never more obviously than on this EP, where he covers old-school pop and rock songs by the likes of The Call, Mr. Mister, U2, Rich Mullins, Bob Dylan, Larry Norman, and uh, dc Talk. That last one seems a bit self-serving (pun!), but to be fair, “Red Letters” was never even a single, definitely more of a deep album cut that you’d have to be more than a casual fan of dc Talk to appreciate, so I don’t mind him reliving his own glory days with that one, even if it doesn’t sound as powerful without Mike and Toby to back him up. Honestly, none of this is as good as the source material he’s covering, and the rule of cover songs is supposed to be that you either deliver it with at least the same amount of oomph fans of the original would expect, or else you go in a different direction and boldly make it your own, and Kevin isn’t quite daring enough to do the latter convincingly when he tries to, nor does he quite have the swagger to pull off the former, so this EP is a bit of a lukewarm mess as a result. To be fair, I’ve always disliked the Bob Dylan song from which the EP gets its name (and I know it’s sacrilege to bag on Dylan, but bear with me here), and there are two versions of that one here for me to endure – one rock, one Gospel, both rather insufferable. And having one of those right next to Larry Norman’s “Righteous Rocker” only serves to highlight the fact that it’s basically the Jesus Music version of the same lyrical conceit. So those three tracks may be coloring my opinion of the entire thing. Still, even with the songs I initially liked that he’s taking on here, I’d rather listen to the original any day.
In Brief: CHL’s swan song, a thoughtfully crafted concept album about Christ’s death and resurrection, is the rare “Christian rock” album that qualifies as excellent art.
The beginning of a new year, 2010, and a new third digit in our numbering system for years that indicates I’ll likely never see another year with “0” in that slot for the rest of my lifetime, means that for the first time, this relatively young music fan gets to look back at entire decade (these things being commonly delineated by that third digit even if the technical scientific approach says our decade isn’t over until the beginning of 2011) and try to sum it all up in terms of the music that was meaningful to me over the course of nearly a third of my life. That’s right, I’m just a smidgen over 30, which means that the 2000’s (or the “Ought Nots”, as I’ve decided to call a decade of learning what not to do in retrospect) were my first full decade of being a true music fan. I might have come of age and finished high school and college in the 90’s, and I have my fair share of nostalgic tunes to whisk me back to those days. But this most recent decade was when I truly opened up, with the advent of file sharing and social networking making it remarkably easy to burst the bubble of “Christian music only” that I started out with, to go beyond the basic pop/rock styles largely dominant on the radio, and to really dig deep and find my own musical personality, unburdened by rumors of danger beyond the comfortable fences I had previously built for myself.
Artist: Cool Hand Luke
Album: The Sleeping House
In Brief: Cool Hand Luke’s more varied and colorful new sound greatly increases the urgency of their message (as well as securing them a spot on my “Best of 2008” list).