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: Fleet Foxes
In Brief: A strangely fractured, and yet strangely beautiful, third album from a band that was clearly restless to expand upon their old sound without completely abandoning it. My opinion of it seems to change with every listen, but it’s slowly inching in a more positive direction. I think this band is challenging its fanbase in mostly good ways.
Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Fleet Foxes’ first two albums made an instant fanboy out of me. Then they went on a long hiatus. Now they’re finally back with an album that is much more intentionally disjointed and sprawling than their past work… and I’m having a really tough time with it. Some of my favorite songs of theirs in the past had complex structures or unexpected moments where the dynamics would shift with little warning, so that’s not the problem per se… but I can’t help remember how, when I first heard of this band, the way they were described to me made me fear that their music would be too lo-fi for my liking. Now that’s actually happened, at least in a few small spots that have a huge effect on my opinion of some otherwise grandiose songs, and I just don’t ever want to have that many moments in the middle of a single song where I keep having to turn the volume up and down, or when a singer known for a gorgeous voice stacked with backing harmonies aplenty decides to show off his croakiest and most atonal side instead. This isn’t a terrible album – “Kept Woman”, “Cassius”, and “Fool’s Errand” stand among the gorgeous highlights, and I enjoy some of the more climactic moments in the longer songs. But overall, it’s the first album of theirs that I’ve had a difficult time getting truly excited about.
The Secret Sisters – You Don’t Own Me Anymore
While it’s less up-tempo than Put Your Needle Down, which got me into this country duo back in 2014, the sparser sound of this record keeps the ladies’ vocals front and center, as they should be, while retaining the sadness and occasional sinister edge that lurk beneath their otherwise sweet, sisterly harmonies. (Just check out “Mississippi”, the murderous perspective-flip on their previous song “Iuka”. Yikes.) I’m glad they had Brandi Carlile to go to bat for them even when their old label lost interest and they got embroiled in a lawsuit with their former manager. Just the fact that The Secret Sisters are still making music is a sign that they’re stronger than a lot of bands that get chewed up and spit out by a heartless industry.
Matisyahu – Undercurrent
There’s this weird design aesthetic that seems to happen when R&B, hip-hop, and/or reggae artists go independent that makes it hard to tell the difference between their album covers and poorly Photoshopped fan art from someone’s favorite online RPG. I suppose it’s a decent enough signifier that Matisyahu is well past caring how mainstream-friendly his music is (or how pure it sounds to reggae fans, etc.) This album continues a trend heard on 2014’s Akeda that finds a number of the songs stretching out into free-form jams, with a bit of Matisyahu’s oddball beatboxing here and there. This time around it was deliberate on his backing band’s part – they just wanted to take these songs where they went and not give a damn about the time constraints of potential radio singles. These rather long-ish tracks (topping out at 14 minutes on the grand finale) are proving to be tough for me to digest, despite there being only 8 of them. But let’s be honest: Youth was an outlier, so I don’t fully expect to click with most of what he’s decided to do after the brief fluke of mainstream success that happened to come with that album and Light. This just isn’t a guy who panders to my sensibilities. In a way, I have to respect that.
Umphrey’s McGee – ZONKEY
A jam band with so many influences spanning from classic rock to modern R&B could probably record a covers album in their sleep. But Umphrey’s went the less traditional route and decided to make studio versions of some of the “live mashups” they’d been performing at their Halloween concerts every year instead, which gives us such bizarre revelations as Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” colliding with Beck’s “Loser” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, or MGMT’s “Kids” syncing up in terrifying perfection with Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and then later melting into Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round” for no reason other than that it sounded cool. This is an absolutely ridiculous (or more appropriately, redonkulous) concept, and probably one with limited replay value, but I have to admit I get a kick out of most of these Frankensteined songs. Kudos to the band for having such stylistic breadth that they could do most of this with live instrumentation instead of simply by chopping up and remixing existing recordings.
Matt Wertz – Gun Shy
Every now and then I discover that Matt Wertz has a “new” record out that’s like a year old by the time I actually get to it. And every time he gravitates farther away from his old acoustic singer/songwriter shtick and closer to full-on throwback pop nostalgia, with a little bit of white boy R&B on the side. It’s not a stylistic choice that gives his songs a lot of staying power, but they’re good for a bit of lighthearted summer fun, and that trend definitely continues here. The hardest-hitting stuff is mostly front-loaded, with the album falling into predictable patterns later on, with only the occasional highlight standing out in the album’s midsection… which for me is par for the course with Wertz’s albums, I guess.
Alt-J – Relaxer
Alt-J sure went from a band I was super excited about to one I could hardly stand in record time. The fascination with understatement that the band pursued on most of their second record This Is All Yours is even more dominant here, which reveals some interesting slow grooves at times, but for the most part just tries my patience. The few upbeat moments seem to be harsher on the ears (and in the lyrical department) than I remember Alt-J being in their early days. Either way, I just can’t seem to win with these guys, which is a shame, because An Awesome Wave did such a good job of balancing the catchy stuff with the weird stuff with the quietly sublime stuff, and the band just seems to have become increasingly off-kilter ever since.
Evanescence – Lost Whispers
This is mostly a collection of the B-sides from Evanescence’s three studio albums thus far. I’ve already heard most of these, and since they were mostly cut from the same cloth as the album tracks they weren’t deemed worthy of appearing among on hose releases, this collection is unsurprisingly rather forgettable. The surprising part is how ballad-heavy this disc is, and while I remember liking such unique touches as the sweet vocal layering on “Missing” and the harp on “Secret Door”, I’m not sure stringing several such tracks together presents any of them in the best light. Even coming from someone who thought Fallen was a blast, I have to admit that Amy Lee’s fatalistic melodrama gets old fast. The big draw for longtime fans is probably the remake of “Even in Death”, the lone refugee from their independent album Origin that didn’t get a big-budget reworking for Fallen but that continued to crop up in the band’s setlists after they’d decidedly left the rest of Origin in the past. (Pity; I rather liked Origin. Though it may have been a collection of demos, it showed way more stylistic diversity than any of their major-label efforts.) How is “Even in Death” reimagined here? As a piano ballad, stripped of the quirky electronic sounds and the dissonance that made it intriguing in the first place. Sigh. It’s like Evanescence is doing everything in their power to remind me that any fascination I once had with the band turned out to be rather shallow. They apparently have a new album due out later this year which promises to change things up… I won’t hold my breath.
Mae – (M)(A)(E)
Mae has yet to release any actual new music (at least that I’m aware of) since reuniting a few years back. However, they’ve reissued their independently released 3-EP set, which was the last thing they did in 2009-10 before their hiatus, and that set, particularly the (m)orning EP, remains my second favorite work of theirs after The Everglow. I’m re-listening to it now because I noticed it had cropped up again on Spotify after the original EPs went missing. I’ve observed that they’ve cleaned up some of the messiness in the tracklisting by shortening or omitting some of the interludes, and merging most of them into the surrounding tracks for continuity. (m)orning is mostly intact, with only its final interlude “(m)orning Drive” missing; the “Good (a)fternoon” intro from (a)fternoon is also gone, making for a smoother transition from “Night/Day” into “Over & Over”. The latter of those two seems to be the only song to get significantly changed in the remaster, as its ending jam session is completely gone, as if the band had reconsidered their original decision to extend the track and decided it needed a radio edit, which is slightly disappointing. Elsewhere, the long interlude “(a)fternoon in Eden”, which was literally just several minutes of crickets, has been mercifully shortened to just a brief outro as “Communication” fades out, the intro “Good (e)vening” has been merged into “Bloom”, “Sleep Well” is now combined with its outro “Good (e)vening” (which makes sense because they really should never have been separate tracks), and the piano instrumental “Seasons” has been moved to the end of the project so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the (e)vening section as much. New listeners probably won’t notice or care about any of this, except that it makes the listening experience a little smoother where it could occasionally be frustrating on the original EPs. So this is an improvement overall. Regardless, the songs on this set were always high quality, and while the remaster brings out some vocal or instrumental bits that I hadn’t noticed before, this isn’t so much a radical reworking of the project as it is an opportunity to re-introduce it to new fans, or to folks who lost track of the band when they were no longer on a label.
2011 was truly an exceptional year for music. It just took me the better part of the year to realize it. Most years, I’m lucky to stumble across at least four albums deserving of the five-star rating that I seem to award more and more rarely these days. But this year, in addition to the four or five that I knew I had to give instant A’s, there were several more albums that persuaded me to bump them up from a carefully considered B at the last minute as I reviewed them and realized how well thought-out even some of their lesser songs were. Now almost my entire Top 10 is comprised of A-grade material. I’m stoked about that. What has been a year full of personal turmoil, possible the most emotionally difficult of my life so far, will at least contain a lot of beauty and grace when I look back upon it years from now, and a lot of that will be due to the music I fondly remember for helping me to make my way through it all.
Fleet Foxes put on a solid show at the Greek Theater tonight. It was my first time seeing them live, and an outdoor venue was the perfect place for it – moon shining overhead, crickets chirping in the background, those pristine vocal harmonies echoing off into the clear night. Full setlist is in my main concert journal entry. I could go into a lot of detail, but just to summarize, I’ll say that FF is capable of a wall of sound that packs a real punch, so it’s not always the chill “acoustic sensitive” experience you’d expect, even though the live arrangements are mostly faithful to the album versions (with some variance in tempo for dramatic effects, usually during the harmony-heavy vocal breaks). The only thing I’d knock off points for – and only meager points at that – would be their awkward stage presence – little bits of funny between-song banter here and there, but it’s a bit disruptive to the mood of their songs and you can tell they’re trying to fill time while retuning (which they have to do a lot – they even opened with awkward silence and stage banter before getting tuned right for their first song). No biggie. When they’re playing, they’re awesome, and they hit pretty much every highlight from their past and present records that I could think of, with maybe “Drops in the River” being the one exception I would have liked to hear but didn’t.
In Brief: You’ll need to be a little more patient with it, but ultimately, Helplessness Blues is another breathtaking accomplishment for this talented band.