Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2017: Favorite Songs

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.

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Josh Ritter – Gathering: When it finally rains, it pours.

2017_JoshRitter_GatheringArtist: Josh Ritter
Album: Gathering
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: This one’s got some ramshackle romps, some haunting ballads that plumb the depths of the soul, and some laid-back country numbers. Yep, it’s a Josh Ritter album, alright – though I wouldn’t say it’s a career landmark this time around.

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What Am I Listening To? – September 2017

2017_EverythingEverything_AFeverDreamEverything Everything – A Fever Dream
I’m kicking myself for not knowing about these guys until they were on album #4. Their highly danceable band of rock with occasional “math-y” rhythmic tricks, falsetto vocals, and politically-charged lyrics brings together a lot of the things I love about bands like Doves, TV on the Radio, and The Temper Trap, just to name a few. This thing shot up to the upper echelons of my “Best of 2017” so far list, and you can probably expect to see it high up in my year-end countdown. (First I need to get a full review of it posted. That’s coming soon… I hope.)

2017_JapaneseBreakfast_SoftSoundsFromAnotherPlanetJapanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Japanese Breakfast is the solo project of Korean-American musician Michelle Zauner. Nothing about it sounds particularly Japanese (or for that matter, Korean), but she did start the project with the intent of influencing more Asian-Americans to write and record their own music. Admittedly I stumbled across her music simply because of the name – a friend found it on Spotify when looking for “Japanese” music to play in the background we played a board game set in the country. What her music does sound like to me is a lot of the breathy, meditative indie folk/pop from the 90s – probably the kind of thing that would have piqued my curiosity at the time, but that seems a bit old hat to me now. There are some really interesting sonic textures in a few of the songs, due to her doing something atonal with the guitar, using Auto-tune and spoken word vocals on a song, or bringing in some bits of baroque instrumentation to help set a few tracks apart from the otherwise straightforward, mid-tempo ambient coffeehouse style that seems to be her default. It’s hard me to stay focused throughout this album due to the samey nature of several songs toward the end, and the way her voice wavers back and forth between soft and dreamy and honestly kind of grating.

2017_MuteMath_PlayDeadMuteMath – Play Dead
MuteMath’s fifth album seemingly can’t be talked about without mentioning the abrupt departure of Darren King, a drummer who has achieved almost god-like status among the band’s fans. How well they’ll do without him remains to be seen, but he was a full participant on this album, and any shortcomings here can’t be blamed on Darren or the lack of Darren. This was a more difficult record for me to get into than any of MuteMath’s previous ones – it’s more complex and jammy like Odd Soul, possibly as a response to the more streamlined, radio-friendly Vitals, though you’ll hear some overlap in the sound and mood of both albums since they were being worked on concurrently. What’s tough for me is that while it gives the four players in the band plenty of time to show off, the energy level of Odd Soul isn’t there, which puts it in this weird space where many of the songs are more laid back but they’re not as instantly memorable as previous “chill” songs in the band’s discography. A lot of it’s still very up-tempo, just not as in your face, though there are some surprising moments on both the loud and soft ends of the spectrum. I’m listening to this one a lot and it is gradually growing on me, but it doesn’t seem likely that it’ll hold a candle to their self-titled album or Odd Soul in the long run.

2017_FooFighters_ConcreteandGoldFoo Fighters – Concrete and Gold
This is only the second time I’ve listened to a Foos album all the way through, and the first time I’ve listened to a “conventional” release of theirs that didn’t have every song undergo a completely different writing and recording process in a different studio like on Sonic Highways. So I don’t share the complaints of some fans who say they’re repeating themselves or they’ve lost their way after whatever their last fan favorite album was. All I know is that there’s some heavy stuff here that kicks ass, I’m generally in line with Dave Grohl’s aggressive but likeable attitude on most of these songs, the guest appearances here (Justin Timberlake! Paul McCartney! Some dude from Boyz II Men!) unfortunately don’t add up to much of anything noticeable, and a few of the tracks can get a bit dreary when the band slows down the tempo. A mixed bag of good and mediocre, basically. Overall, I’m enjoying it, but without the central concept piquing my curiosity about the story behind each individual song, it’s unfortunately a bit too tempting to simply pick out the highlights and ignore the rest.

2016_TheNoreasters_RiseThe Nor’easters – Rise
This college acapella group managed to get me hooked on enough of their versions of pop songs I was previously unfamiliar with on their last album Equilibrium, including a gorgeous Justin Timberlake ballad and a pair of Florence + The Machine songs that may well have been the catalyst to get me into that band. Here, the only songs I recognize right out of the gate are the pair of Sia covers that open and close the album, “Alive” and “Elastic Heart”. I adore “Elastic Heart”, and their arrangement here is an appropriately climactic show-stopper, but I’m rather meh on “Alive” and most of the rest of the Sia songs I’ve heard, to be honest. I’m not even familiar with a lot of the original artists on the tunes in between, so I’m pretty well out of my depth in terms of judging how their performances stack up to the mostly R&B/pop-leaning tunes they’ve chosen to cover. I could see this potentially being a catalyst to get me to check out a few of the original versions, particularly “Honeymoon Avenue”. While sometimes I think plucking pop songs from the Top 40 sets up a lead/background dynamic that isn’t the best way for an acapella group to show its range, they do some interesting things with the rhythms and backing “instrumentation” on several of these tracks that help to set them apart from the usual “just lay down a beat and shove a singer up front for the audience to applaud”. (On that note, why the live version of “Runnin'”? The crowd noise is really distracting when this is otherwise a studio project.)

2017_JoshRitter_GatheringJosh Ritter – Gathering
While this one’s a bit less country-inflected than Sermon on the Rocks, one can always expect a rambling roulette of folksy sounds on a Josh Ritter record, with the occasional allusions to old-time religion, various models of travel, and colorful metaphors for a broken heart, and on all of those notes, this one doesn’t disappoint. From up-tempo anthems with a vulnerable side they can only barely manage to hide like “Showboat” to long, haunting ballads like “Dreams” that tell arresting stories, Ritter shows no signs of his creativity waning. And while I may not always understand or appreciate where he takes each individual song, he reminds me many times on this record why he’s still one of my favorite songwriters.

2017_TheKillers_WonderfulWonderfulThe Killers – Wonderful Wonderful
I enjoy The Killers in two modes: When they’re clearly doing something big, cheesy, and just plain fun, as on a lot the dance/synth rock oriented tracks heard on their debut Hot Fuss (and to a lesser extent Day & Age), or when they can pull off convincing ballads that are neither too lightweight nor too bogged down in self-serious theatrics. They walk that fine line better here than they have on any album since their debut, and while only a handful of tracks here are instant love, I’m tracking better with the overall thematic arc of this record than I did with pretty much anything on Sam’s Town or Battle Born. Commentary on what actual manhood means in the 21st century is prevalent throughout, and there are probably enough hints of how Brandon Flowers’ Mormon upbringing clashes with his seedy Las Vegas side to write an entire term paper on. It sounds more like he actually has a story to tell than like he’s trying so painfully hard to convince us he has a story to tell, which is an important distinction that separates some of these new songs from the band’s past work. Flowers is still emphatically not one of my favorite vocalists, but I don’t seem to mind his yelpy, ever-so-slightly-off-key delivery this time around, so that’s a sign of progress as well. Also, “The Man” is such a stupidly addictive single that I’m quite happy to forget “Human” ever existed.

Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks: I got a devil in my eye.

2015_JoshRitter_SermonontheRocksArtist: Josh Ritter
Album: Sermon on the Rocks
Year: 2015
Grade: B

In Brief: A much more diverse, playful, foreboding, swaggery, fantastical, pretty much everything (except boring and mopey!) album than The Beast in Its Tracks. I’m unsure how much of this record is fact and how much is fiction, and since Ritter is so good at the fiction, that’s just the way I like it.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2015: Favorite Songs

The first order of business as 2015 comes to a close is to sift through all of my favorite songs that I first heard this year (or perhaps late last year, and it just took me a little longer to appreciate them) and attempt to put them in order, which as usual starts to get a bit silly below the top 30 or so. Music videos and some live performances are embedded for that first chunk of the list. As I’ve done in previous years, I’ve also got a Spotify playlist that covers a lot of these, limited to a song per artist and more in chronological order of when I discovered them.

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What Am I Listening To? – October 2015

2015_Tree63_LandTree63 – Land
Tree63 is one of those bands who seems to disappear for long stretches of time and then resurface. I haven’t really been into them since their first few records way back in the early 2000s, when I still had a decent tolerance for foreign-accented worship bands that clearly wanted to be the next Delirious? by way of sounding like U2 a lot. But to Tree63’s credit, they’ve been unhappy about getting pigeonholed as “that band that did the really good cover of that Matt Redman song” and they do try to mix a lot of more “conversational” material in with the praise choruses. Land seems to continue that trend – some really solid rockers, a few interesting genre twists I didn’t see coming, some meditative, ambient stuff that will probably go over the heads of listeners looking for those simple praise choruses, and… I’ll be honest, some of it’s the same boring adult contemporary stuff that makes Tree63 more of a “singles band” than an “album band” in my book.

2015_JoshRitter_SermonontheRocksJosh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks
On an album that is thankfully not all about the gory details of Ritter’s personal life, and thankfully features him doing more than just strumming an acoustic guitar for 13 tracks, he takes aim at modern American Christian culture, and well, kind of turns a lot of the “holy roller” language on its head. There’s probably some witty social commentary in here. Iron & Wine’s probably said similar stuff, albeit more cryptically, but I appreciate the attempt all the same. What’s most notable is how rock and country influences mold a lot of these songs into very different shapes, sometimes twisting them mid-song into something you wouldn’t have expected based on how it started out. I prefer variety when it comes to Josh Ritter albums, so this fits my bill way better than The Beast in Its Tracks ever could have.

2015_BeachHouse_ThankYourLuckyStarsBeach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars
Another year, another Beach House album. Wait… they released the last one only two months ago? I was going to say, “Way to follow up a non-event with another non-event, guys”, but the truth is, I’m warming to this one a little more easily than Depression Cherry. Amidst the dreary gloom that pervades a lot of the material here, there’s actually a little more variance in tempo and texture than I would have expected from the band. Sometimes they’re still up to their old tricks (check out “Common Girl”; it’s pretty much the same keyboard melody from “On the Sea”, except not nearly as interesting), and their rather uninspired insistence on using canned drums isn’t doing them any favors, but I dare say that a few of these songs are eerily romantic.

2015_JonForeman_TheWonderlandsDawnJon Foreman – The Wonderlands: Dawn
Foreman’s suite of one song for each hour of the day (though he actually ended up giving us 25, so one to grow on, I guess) finishes up beautifully with this song that finds the darkness from the previous EP slowly giving way to daylight. Some of his most striking scriptural songs can be found here, as well as a bit of quirky commentary on his own utter lack of even coming close to deserving grace on the standout “Mercy’s War”. For me it’s the album closer “Before Our Time” that really takes the cake – it’s another collaboration with Sara Watkins, but this time she gets to tear it up on the violin and the result is a true sense of joy. I expected mostly mellow and kinda samey output from Foreman’s solo work, so I think he really stepped up his game by wrangling a different producer for each track and making a solid effort to ensure that the songs would all stand out. Now… I wonder how that whole “play 25 shows in 24 hours” project is going for him?

2015_JarsofClayTheLongFallBacktoEarthDeluxeEditionJars of Clay – The Long Fall Back to Earth (Deluxe Edition)
I normally don’t get that hyped about re-releases, but the good folks at Jarchives have been really excited for this one, and with good reason – there’s a generous helping of bonus tracks tacked on to the end of it, turning what was already Jars of Clay’s longest album at 14 tracks into 20. Three of the “overcuts”, which apparently were recorded during the album sessions back in 2009, are quirky, up-tempo pop/rock, sort of in the same overall style as The Long Fall proper except that they deviate just enough to where you can see why they didn’t quite fit the album. They’re strong material nonetheless, especially “Love Won’t Let Us” with its surprisingly aggressive guitar attack, which is unlike anything Jars of Clay has done in the “rock out just for the heck of it” department. The other three tracks are remixes of beloved album cuts that I’ve known every single word and note of for six years now, so changing up their sounds, and often their melodies is a risky proposition. But the “Headphones” and “Heaven” remixes are really good, y’all. They almost rival the album versions, and yet they’re quite a departure genre-wise. The “Heart” remix at the end might be a bridge too far, as was a lot of the bizarro material on Inlandia, but having all three of these done by Jeff Savage (who apparently only likes song titles that start with “Hea”) does help to give them a more unified feel. If not for that and the strength of the “overcuts”, this release could have felt like a desperate clearing of the vaults for some quick cash.

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2013: Dishonorable Mentions and Mild Disappointments

When going over my least favorite music of the year, I have to point out as always that there is far worse music out there than anything on this list – mostly by artists who turned me off so much with a single or two, or with obnoxious public personas, that I wouldn’t want to listen to an album of theirs to begin with. But these are all sub-par albums I managed to listen to all the way through at least twice, by artists that I’ve genuinely enjoyed in the past (with maybe one exception).

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