Tennis – We Can Die Happy: This “little bit left” goes a long way.

2017_Tennis_WeCanDieHappyEPArtist: Tennis
Album: We Can Die Happy EP
Year: 2017
Grade: A-

In Brief: A worthy companion piece to one of 2017’s most blissful indie pop records. There’s a slight bit more bounce to a few of these, but still, the band could have slipped any of them on to Yours Conditionally and they’d have been right at home.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2017: Favorite Albums (and Honorable Mentions)

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.)

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2017: Wait, That’s Not an Album! (and Last Year’s Leftovers)

As always, I wanted to give a mention to the music I enjoyed this year that didn’t fit the traditional “album” format, or else that was released in 2016 and I didn’t catch up to it until this year. Either way, none of it’s eligible for my Top 20 list, but all of it is definitely worth checking out if anything I have to say here piques your interest.

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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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What Am I Listening To? – November 2017

2017_CircaSurvive_TheAmuletCirca Survive – The Amulet
It’s easy to characterize this as a “softer” Circa Survive album, simply because Anthony Green is doing more melodic stuff with his vocals and less screaming. There’s still some heaviness there, but not every song needs it, and in scaling back the roughness, it continues a pattern established by their last few albums. I’m OK with this, as it leads to highlights that are still fast-paced and beautifully performed, such as the gorgeous vocal performance in opening track “Lustration” and the complex drum rolls and math-y rhythms of “Tunnel Vision”. Where Green brings out the angrier, more acidic side of his voice, as on “Never Tell a Soul” or “Rites of Investiture”, it’s a welcome change of pace rather than it being an overbearing thing that has to happen in every song like some harder rock bands feel the need to do. It’s an evolution similar to Thrice about 10 or 12 years ago, and it’s no mistake that the two bands recently toured together. I will say that I have difficulty telling a number of the songs apart, even after several listens, due to the similar pace of most of them and the more melodic focus overall, but that also means the results aren’t as uneven as they were on Descensus, which had stronger highlights but was more of a mixed bag.

2017_Owel_LiveFromAudioPilotStudiosOwel – Live From Audio Pilot Studios
10 of the 12 tracks from Owel’s excellent sophomore album Dear Me are reconstructed pretty faithfully in a “live in studio” setting here, with non-album track “All I’ll Ever Know” squeezing its way into the set. (Sadly, “Annabel” and “Places” don’t make an appearance – both were personal favorites of mine.) While there are no radical surprises in these renditions, it’s neat to hear the chimes at the end of “Albert and the Hurricane” segue perfectly into “Slow” (these were the two bookend tracks on the album), and overall I’m impressed at how well the band can pull off their complex and multi-layered sound in a live setting. This must have been recorded before violinist and backing vocalist Jane Park left the band – I hope they manage to find a suitable replacement for her, since her instrument (as well as the keyboards she plays on several songs) is pretty integral to a lot of their work.

2017_RinaSawayama_RINAEPRina Sawayama – RINA EP
Born in Japan and raised in England, this young singer/songwriter unabashedly draws from R&B and teenybopper pop sounds from around the turn of the century. I wasn’t super into this sound at the time, but reviews emphasizing the creative production and interesting themes explored in these songs made me figure it could be worth a listen. I like a lot of it for the same reason I enjoy Kimbra’s music – it’s a smart take on a genre that only works for me when the songs have interesting melodic twists and turns, don’t exist solely to cram an obvious pop hook down your throat, and feel like they have something to say beyond the typical love songs and breakup songs and style with no substance. Rina throws a number of odd curveballs throughout this mini-album – edgy rock guitars, key changes you just plain don’t see coming, a slick R&B duet, some interludes that I really wish had been expanded into full songs, and intriguing commentary on what it means to connect with other humans in the Internet age. She’s definitely one to watch – I hope a full-length album is forthcoming to show us more of what she’s got on her mind.

2017_Tennis_WeCanDieHappyEPTennis – We Can Die Happy EP
A 5-song set from the married duo who so effortlessly made me fall in love with their music on Yours Conditionally earlier this year. Those songs could well be from the same sessions or recorded shortly thereafter – a few show off slightly more dance-y rhythms, but just about any of them would feel at home on the album, making me wonder why they ended up on a separate release in the first place. Opening track “No Exit” is the standout here, but there really isn’t a dud in the bunch, and I love how the Beach House-y closing ballad “Building God” feels like it could segue right back into “In the Morning I’ll Be Better”, completing a 15-song set meant to be listened to on a loop.

2017_Evanescence_SynthesisEvanescence – Synthesis
Evanescence’s long-awaited fourth album is mostly old material, re-recorded with orchestral instrumentation and electronic percussion in place of the heavy guitar riffs and rock drums heard on their previous records. This may be the result of Amy Lee following a personal muse that her old label kept her from following for many years, or it may just be a smart rebranding of a sound that made Evanescence massively famous and then rapidly fell out of favor with mainstream audiences. Either way, while I miss some of the rocking energy of some of the songs from Fallen and The Open Door that made the cut, it’s a second shot at life for several tracks that I had honestly forgotten about from their lackluster self-titled album (most of which sound almost unrecognizable on first listen), and there are two brand new songs and a few instrumental segues to round out the set as well. Taking it all in at once is a bit much, and I don’t think leaning so heavily on old material bodes well for the future of Evanescence, either as a band or a solo act, but it’s nice to hear old favorites given a new creative spark, and one wonders if this might have been the direction Evanescence intended all along, if not for the interference of their label during the heyday of nu-metal. A few of these songs, such as “My Immortal”, “Lacrymosa”, and “Secret Door”, were pretty heavily focused on piano and/or strings in their original versions, which can sometimes mean that there’s not as much to reimagine in these versions. What I really hope for is that this record, which drops the rock side of their sound almost completely, leads to a truer synthesis of the classical and heavy rock sides of Evanescence if/when they actually manage to record again as a full band.

2017_BarenakedLadies_FakeNudesBarenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes
I really wasn’t looking forward to this one. The Barenaked Ladies will probably never get out from under the shadow of departed co-founder Steven Page, and for a while there I was surprised that they kept trying, since the material on Grinning Streak and Silverball was largely inferior, even when compared to Ed Robertson’s material from their older records. I’m not gonna say that this record will bring back old fans in droves, but you know what? Against all odds, it makes me HAPPY. I seriously mean that. Even though the opening ballad “Canada Dry” is a bit of a sad folk song, and several of the other highlights are the more downbeat tunes, I feel like Robertson and co. had stronger inspiration for a lot of these songs. With that said, a number of them are still quite silly and goofy, and they band’s back to a point where it seems they’re not at all concerned with being taken seriously as mainstream rock stars. They’re perhaps prouder to immediately identify themselves as uniquely Canadian here than they’ve been since the early days, rather than trying to blend into to the American hit radio scene, which has had no use for them in a very long time anyway. This disc brings together a lot of their musical influences in unexpected ways, pushing them a little further from the middle of the road that they stubbornly clung to on their last few albums. Kevin Hearn is genuinely coming into his own as a sidekick to Ed – he gets a co-write and/or lead vocal on nearly half of the album, and with a Jim Creeggan track thrown in as well, the band is starting to feel more democratic again, instead of just feeling like the Ed Robertson show. Robertson is better off creatively when he doesn’t have to carry the weight of a record mostly by himself.

2017_Bjork_UtopiaBjörk – Utopia
I honestly don’t know what to do with this one. At over 70 minutes, it’s Björk’s longest album, which is saying something when Vulnicura was already a bit of a gauntlet to get through. While Utopia is a much happier record overall due to Björk apparently being back on the dating scene and experiencing the thrill of new love again, that doesn’t necessarily translate to more up-tempo music. Thumping beats and electronic experimentation still play a role here, but it’s far diminished compared to Björk’s 90s work or even the softer incarnation of it on VespertineVulnicura was a dark record, but it at least had a variety of musical moods, and it felt like it had enough tracks with more anchored melodies and structures to balance out the more spacey, experimental stuff. Here, the first two tracks remind me strongly of Vespertine, and I pretty much instantly fell in love with them, while most of the rest of the album is a long, slow crawl full of trilling flutes and birdsongs and pregnant pauses in the middle of long, spacious songs. Björk’s melodies often reach out like tendrils, seeking hooks that they haven’t yet found, and while I could tolerate that sort of defiance of rhythm and traditional song structure here and there on her past albums, it gets really annoying when she does it track after track here. Despite this being one of Björk’s more easygoing records mood-wise (outside of the few tracks where she rails against her ex-lover and the patriarchy in general, at least), it may well be her most challenging work thus far.

Tennis – Yours Conditionally: 40-Love.

2017_Tennis_YoursConditionallyArtist: Tennis
Album: Yours Conditionally
Year: 2017
Grade: B

In Brief: Tennis has a laid-back, breezy, sunny sort of indie pop style that feels like a less gloomy, more innocent Beach House. It’s an easy sound to fall in love with, though the lack of variance in tone and tempo can start to get repetitive toward the album’s end.

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What Am I Listening To? – April 2017

2016_EverythinginSlowMotion_LaidLowEPEverything in Slow Motion – Laid Low EP
This North Dakota band was a recommendation from the same brother who got me into Thrice all those years ago, and much like Thrice circa Vheissu, these guys seem to be in a transition period between post-hardcore and a more melodic, but still heavy, approach to modern rock music. While I think they’re still in search of a sound that truly sets them apart from some other bands in the genre, they do show potential on songs like “Coma”, which moves effortlessly from up-tempo anthem to heavy breakdown, or “Runaway”, which shows off some more progressive time signature and tempo shifts, particularly with its doom-y slowdown at the end. (Hey, the band has to live up to their name somewhere, right?) I’d like to see how this approach translates to a “full album” listen next time these guys put out an LP, but for now, this is an interesting first taste.

2017_TheNewPornographers_WhiteoutConditionsThe New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
The first New Pornos album without Dan Bejar streamlines their sound quite a bit. This is a lean & mean power pop record, much heavier on the keyboards than their past stuff, but still full of lively drums and guitars, that never really slows down to catch its breath aside from one or two mid-tempo tracks. It’s a lot of fun, and I love how well integrated the three remaining vocalists (A. C. Newman, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder) are on pretty much every song, but I kind of miss the experiments and odd detours heard on some of Bejar’s material. Without that, and without any slower tracks to speak of, the album lacks highlights as strong as “The Bleeding Heart Show” or “Adventures in Solitude” or “My Shepherd”, which were some of my favorites on their past records. But this one’s still a fun romp.

2017_Tennis_YoursConditionallyTennis – Yours Conditionally
Tennis’s music might legitimately earn the term “yacht rock”, since the married duo that fronts the band has a love of sailing, which inspires many of their songs even if that’s not what the actual subject matter is about. The carefree, sunny tone of 70s and 80s soft rock colliding with modern-day indie pop is a good starting point for describing their sound, with female vocals that are reminiscent of Nina Gordon or Gwen Stefani in certain places. Think of a less gloomy, more upbeat Beach House and that might help. While the record settles into a bit of a lull of samey-sounding songs after a while, it definitely opens with its best material, and underneath the sugary-sweet vocals and laid-back instrumental work, a few of these songs actually offer a bit of subversive commentary on gender roles, while others are as straightforwardly lovey-dovey as they seem to be on the surface, reminding us that dissatisfaction with how the world defines husbands and wives doesn’t have to mean dissatisfaction in their own marriage.

2017_MichelleBranch_HopelessRomanticMichelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic
The 14 years in between Hotel Paper and Michelle’s latest solo album haven’t been entirely unproductive – I actually really enjoyed The Wreckers’ lone album, and her attempt at a similarly country-flavored solo career on the Everything Comes and Goes EP. But she probably wrote and then ended up having to scrap a good three albums’ worth of material between then and now, due to the extreme cycles of development hell she apparently went through with multiple record labels. She’s got a good arsenal of 14 songs now that she’s finally managed to put a record out, but the bad news is, they’re pretty boring. Her guitar-driven pop style in the old days wasn’t exactly innovative, but it was energetic and fun and occasionally had some real bite to it. A lot of these new songs are keyboard-driven, with weak hooks and limp drums. (That last bit’s extra-frustrating, given that she’s dating Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who played on the record.) The first few listens to this one were a real chore. It just seems designed to blend into the background, and that’s not a good look for a comeback album when you’re trying to reintroduce yourself to a fanbase that has probably almost doubled in age since they last heard from you.

2017_FlintEastwood_BrokeRoyaltyEPFlint Eastwood – Broke Royalty EP
The electropop sound I feel in love with on Small Victories has been further tweaked here, adding in hints of hip-hop and R&B influence, a bit of vocal distortion, and a generous helping of triumphant attitude. it’s a fun mixture, but the production gimmicks almost threaten to drown out the songwriting at several moments, making it harder for me to get into a lot of these new tracks, compared to how quickly her old material caught on. For some strange reason, “Glitches” and “Monster” from the previous EP show up again here, without much if anything changed from the original recordings. So you’re really only getting five new songs instead of 7… but those 5 are an intriguing attempt to expand on Flint’s sound.

2017_Incubus_8Incubus – 8
While it’s nice to hear these guys returning to an edgier sound after the extreme bore-fest that was If Not Now, When?, I still feel largely uninspired by this record after my first few times through it. A few of these songs sound like they could have fit on Make Yourself or A Crow Left of the Murder, but I’m not hearing the restless creative energy that was present on albums like Morning View or Light Grenades. I don’t need Incubus to return to an old sound, so much as I need them to continue thinking outside of the box in amusing and intriguing ways. I saw glimpses of that on the better tracks Trust Fall (Side A) a few years ago, which excited me far more than anything I’m hearing on this one.

2017_SleepingatLast_AtlasIntelligenceSleeping at Last – Atlas: Intelligence
The three light-as-a-feather tracks on SAL’s latest Atlas installment attempt to describe the roles that the body, heart and mind play in the human experience and in our decision-making process. As usual, it’s pretty stuff but I’m not hearing a lot of new ideas. The light electronic undertones of “Mind” probably make it the most interesting track; it contrasts nicely with the expected sentimentality heard on “Heart”. I guess at this point all Ryan O’Neal has left to finish is the 9-song Enneagram suite, and Atlas: Year Two might actually stand a chance of being wrapped up within the span of two years.

John Mayer – The Search For Everything

It’s been a full decade since I last considered a John Mayer album to be tolerable. I hated Battle Studies and was largely indifferent about the two laid-back acoustic records that followed. The Search For Everything feels like John’s acknowledgment that he can’t escape the mainstream; while there are some folksy tracks here and even a country influenced one, he mostly returns to the lightly bluesy pop of Continuum. The results aren’t terribly exciting, but they also aren’t terrible. The two things that make it hardest for me to engage John Mayer’s material these days are that his reputation as a guitarist far exceeds the actual talent displayed on his records, and his reputation as a womanizer with a big, stupid mouth makes it hard to sympathize with his songs of lost love and loneliness. That’s mostly true here, though a few moments of vulnerable soul-searching, most notably “In the Blood”, have managed to catch me off-guard.

Mew – Visuals

Mew cranked out a follow-up to 2015’s + – faster than they ever have to any of their previous albums, and superficially, it feels a lot like a companion to that album at first, to the point where I actually forgot that guitarist Bo Madsen had left after that one, because most of these songs could easily co-mingle with tracks from that album and a lot of us would be none the wiser. There’s nothing epically long here, which might be a first for Mew, but the surprisingly heavy opening riffs of “Candy Pieces All Smeared Out” and the uniquely tropical feel of “Twist Quest” serve as strong reminders that Mew is still very much in exploratory mode. This just came out a few days ago, and I’ll need a few more concentrated listens with headphones to really let its intricacies sink in, but I like what I’m hearing so far.