2017 Music Review

2017 was a hard year.  Personally, professionally, globally, politically, emotionally, you name it everything seemed like a challenge.  Music continues to be my happy place and something I turn to when I need a respite from life.  So I am happy to share my top albums for 2017 and look forward to a much better 2018!

 2017 was a strong year for new music.  Streaming makes it so much easier to listen to anything at any time and discover new music.  My best concert of the year was a complete surprise as I only went because I received a last minute invite to see Rodger Waters at the Wells Fargo.  The sound, set list and special effects made for a memorable show from an artist that is not one of my faves.   Jay Z was superb as he always is.  The Record Company,  Waxahachee, The Revivalists, and two jazz guys with the first name Christian, McBride and Scott, were all highlights.

 The departed artist list includes some heavy weights but Tom Petty was my biggest loss.  I listened to hours of Petty songs throughout the fall and was constantly amazed at how many great songs he wrote over a long career.  Tragic suicides took Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave, solo and one of the all-time great rock voices) and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park).  Both singers had histories of depression and the two friends died within a month of each other.  Another example of the hard year was not only losing great singers,  but sadness over why they could not contain their demons and passed away too young.    On to the top 10.

Top 10 Albums of 2017

Beck  – In Colors – An upbeat, fun and danceable album from an artist who consistently puts out excellent and varied music in his own, whatever I feel like, mood.  What surprised me was the album’s treatment from top album reviews at year end.  I typically assemble my list over Thanksgiving so I don’t get swayed by the music world’s lists.  Beck’s album, even though he is highly regarded by critics everywhere, did not appear on one top anything list I checked.  Not the top 50 on Paste, not Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, NY Times, Philly.com, Washington Post.  But who cares!  For me it was an easy choice, not a bad song on the entire album and easy to listen to over and over.  

Lorde –  Melodrama – The sophomore effort by a young singer/songwriter that announced her presence with her 2013 debut single ‘Royals’.  The album was personal, (breaking up, growing up) with danceable beats.  Her voice is deep but with range.  The album is much more electronic than Pure Heroine, partly due to her first time collaborating with Jack Antonoff, the latest wunderkind singer, songwriter and producer.  The songs on Melodrama stuck in your head for long periods.  I can’t say I was a previous fan and thought the praise for her first album was excessive, but this came out in July and stayed in my rotation for the rest of the year.  My wife surprised me with tickets to her April show at Wells Fargo for Christmas.  We will most likely be the oldest people in the building but look forward to seeing Lorde perform live.   

Aimee Mann –Mental Illness – Aimee self-released her ninth studio album and like most of her career, it was another example of her excellent songwriting skills complimented by her beautiful voice.   My mother passed away this year on August 29th.  She was the greatest human being I will ever know.  I had been listening to this album in late summer and the song ‘Goose Snow Cone’ was a favorite.  During my Mom’s hospital stays, passing and funeral services I listened to this song constantly.   It brought me comfort in a really difficult time.  The song is about moving away and missing home.  There is a line in the chorus that resonated when I needed to be strong, “gotta keep it together when my friends come round’.  Now I can’t hear it without thinking about my Mom who everyone called ‘Honey’.  So thank you Aimee for giving me the song that will be part of my Honey soundtrack forever.

The XX – I See You – This is the third album from the English indie, electronic, threesome The XX.  All three albums have been interesting.  They feature a minimalist sound with spacing in between beats and lyrics.  There are two front singers, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, playing guitar and bass with a multi instrument, DJ, producer named Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx) playing everything else.  The first XX release had been in my top 10 in 2009.  We saw them live this summer at the small stage in the back of the Mann and I was disappointed.  The show sounded just like the album with no extended plays or improvisation.  The album is enjoyable regardless and was on my playlist since its release in January of 2017.

Waxahatchee  –Out in the Storm – Pure rock n roll fun from Philadelphia native Katie Crutchfield with some assistance from her identical twin sister Allison.  Allison released her own album last January.  Out in the Storm is a break up album with teeth.  The entire album is good with varied pacing.  I first discovered them at a Free at Noon at World Café Live (still the best place to see a show in Philly).  Waxahatchee saw a lot of love from the national critics’ lists for 2017.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell was kicked out of the Drive by Truckers ten years ago while his former wife stayed with the band.  Talk about awkward!  He has since sobered up completely, remarried singer Amanda Shires and gone on to write some of the best rock/folk/Americana albums of the past ten years.  In 2015 he won 2 Grammies for best Americana song and Album with his Something More than Free (also on my top ten list).  The Nashville Sound is another well written and easy to listen to album.  Jason Isbell’s album is found on many ‘Best of’ lists for 2017.

Valerie June – The Order of Time – Valerie June is hard to categorize.  She can be described as folk, blues, gospel, jazz, country, all intertwined with thoughtful songwriting.  She plays guitar, banjo, and ukulele.  She is charming and funny live with her signature wild dreadlock hair styles.  The Order of Time is an album that anyone would appreciate. 

Kamasi Washington  – Harmony of Difference  – Kamasi is an extraordinary sax player from Los Angeles.  His last album was a 3 hour, 3 CD release called The Epic which was appropriate in that it did not contain one weak song.  His album in 2017 is actually an EP but the 6 tracks comprise 35 minutes.  He is highly sought after to play on other artists albums including Kendrick Lamar, Robert Glasper, Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dog.  Kamasi plays with a big jazz band but his expansive sax playing is the star of the show.

Kendrick Lamar – Damn – Damn is the best rap album of 2017 and considered the top album of 2017 by many publications.  It is a great album.  It is Kendrick’s third highly-regarded album but I must admit that I did not love his earlier releases.  He won a Grammy for to pimp a butterfly which featured jazz artists that I love including Kamasi, Thundercat, and Robert Glasper.  Despite all that talent and accolades I could never really get into the album.  Damn is more direct, with catchy beats and simpler lyrics.

The National – Sleep Well BeastThe National is an indie, alternative rock band that was formed in 1999.  Originally from Cincinnati the 5 piece band features a lead singer and primary song writer Matt Berninger with 2 sets of brothers.  This is their 7th album and although it takes on some new directions is similar to most of their body of work.  I have been a fan for years and some of their earlier albums have appeared on my Top 10 list before.  The singer has a baritone voice and the band is as tight as you would expect from a band that has been together for 18 years.   

Honorable Mention:

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding – Philly-based Adam Granduciel with an excellent dreamy rock album.

Julian Baker – Turn Out the Lights –  Powerful voice singing ballads that build to bold conclusions.

Mondo Cozmo  – Plastic Soul –Philly born, now lives in LA, indie singer, songwriter and producer.  It is an alternative rock album that very easy to listen to from beginning to end.