Another year has passed and it’s time, once again, for me to select my personal top ten albums of the year. 2017 was a tumultuous year, to say the least, and many artists reflected upon the social and political landscape. Others delved deeply into their own personal lives, struggles and life changes. A few of my choices are from 40 year performers who never seem to get the recognition they deserve. I have included a few concept/storytelling albums. The artists I have chosen all took their music into a new direction and you could tell from listening they upped their game.
10. Robyn Hitchcock – Robyn Hitchcock (self-titled)
This kooky Brit has been around for 4 decades with his unique brand of quirky pop. This new one is no different, however I found it catchier than most of his previous works. At times, some of these songs could have fit alongside a John Lennon tune from The Beatles Revolver album. Then suddenly he switches genres and cranks out a twangy country diddy. Lyrically, it’s filled with humor, sarcasm and unapologetic schmaltz.
9. The Residents – Ghost of Hope
The Residents is another 40 year band on my list. Most of their albums fall into the category of unlistenable, on purpose. There is no way to describe their musical genre, since it doesn’t really exist. Ghost of Hope is a concept album, like many of their others. This is a narrative of the perils of train travel in the 19th century. Part spoken word, part poetry, all from actual events and actual written encounters of train wrecks. All this imagery backed by sound effects, and eerie music that only the Residents can conjure up. This album is disturbing and very difficult to engage. I would not recommend listening to this alone, or with people, unless you want them to leave. However, for the sheer oddity, it’s on my list. There has never been an album like this, nor will there ever be again. At least not until the next Residents album. Proceed with caution.
8. Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors (self-titled)
Moving on to a more current band. Dirty Projectors have been around for a while but this album is more of a solo effort from band member Dave Longstreth. Former vocalist Amber Coffman turned out to be Longstreth’s former girlfriend. Therefore, this album chronicles their relationship from beginning to eventual end. The genre could only be described as hipster/hip-hop/electronic fusion. Lyrically brilliant and an interesting listen. A creative effort and it grows on you with each listen.
7. Pere Ubu – 20 years in a Montana Missile Silo
Pere Ubu exploded onto the punk scene in the late 70’s with their own brand of garage/howl rock centered around the incoherent grunts and squeals of singer David Thomas. Many years have passed and the band dove into further weirdness and seemed to have abandoned their signature sound. This album is a return to form, with the older, yet still cantankerous Thomas spouting venom, backed by a raucous sound that I have missed. It’s weird , yet strangely addictive. Howl on David. Welcome back Pere Ubu. I couldn’t be happier to have you back.
6. Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
Rhiannon, former member of the bluegrass sensation Carolina Chocolate Drops, returns with her second solo effort. I loved her first one, but this one is even better. This time, she delves into a concept album of roots music that chronicles the African American songs of 200 years ago. It’s an inside look at the lives of slaves in early America. Unapologetic, powerful, focused on the day to day lives of the people at the time, without being preachy or condescending. Another brilliant album from a true artist. Her voice is angelic, the music sad, yet uplifting. An astounding record.
5. Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child
Back to the veteran performers with the new release by the always brilliant Willie Nelson. Willie hasn’t sounded this good in years. The songs are as humorous as they are provocative. He addresses his mortality head on with a classic line “I woke up still not dead today, the internet said I passed away”. How can you not love this guy. The songs flow in and out with wonderfully crafted lyrics over sounds. A wonderful Sunday morning listen. I hope he lives forever. Great album.
4. Imelda May – Life Love Flesh Blood
Imelda May has abdicated her crown of new Rockabilly Queen to switch roles as a songstress. At first, I was angry, thinking who needs another Adele. At first listen, I was a bit disappointed but as I took a few more turns, it grew on me. This is a brilliant introspective album from one of the finest singers to come out of Ireland in a long time, maybe forever. The ballads are heart wrenching and the bluesy songs hit the mark hard. It’s honest, without being sappy. It’s strong but not over produced. I applaud her bravery to switch genres and risk getting thrown into the mix of pop stars. She achieves her goal eloquently and effortlessly, but you can tell she worked hard on this album. Her scars are on full display and I dig it. Her voice is amazing.
3. Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings – Soul of A Woman
We lost Sharon Jones to cancer in 2016. This is a collection of songs recorded over her last 2 years of life. She is in her best form and the Dap Kings are as strong as ever. Sharon Jones was one of the greatest soul singers in the company of Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin…yes that good…And she proves it once again on this brilliant album. The second half is ballad heavy and she addresses her inevitable end. I don’t want to call this a death album, but it’s pretty close. It’s hard to believe she is gone. A world without Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse, in my opinion, is soulless.
2. Ray Davies – Americana
It’s no secret to everyone that knows me, I’m a Kinks fanatic. 5 decade veteran of rock music, and master storyteller, Ray Davies returns with his 3rd solo effort. This time, he revisits his early days of The Kinks, but not with the usual rock n roll, but with an American roots sound. Backed by alt-country indie darlings, the Jayhawks, Ray spins yarns about his vision of America as a young British pop star and discovering the truth behind it’s myth. It’s a beautiful record with catchy, sweet songs and the signature sardonic wit we have grown accustomed to from Ray. He paints a picture with each song, walking us through the beauty that is the American landscape, combined with it’s seedy corrupt underbelly. A journey from past to present brilliantly chronicled by a true journeyman. Ray never ceases to amaze me.
- Sparks – Hippopotamus
My pick for album of the year comes from another 4 decade band that consists of brothers Ron and Russel Mael. Sparks have released an album that encompasses the various styles of music they have experimented in over the past 40 years. The difference here is they seemed to have mastered every style on one singular album. The art pop songs are not overly pretentious. Some of it will remind you of the early 70’s Sparks you grew to love. Other parts hint at the disco stage of the 80’s. Humor in tact, they fire on all cylinders. Even if you aren’t familiar with the genius of Ron Mael’s lyrics and arrangements, you will find this album interesting and maybe even accessible. Songs will stick in your brain and you will find yourself singing them everywhere you go. This album put a huge grin on my face since I first heard it in September. I had it on repeat for weeks on end, put it away, then returned to it and found it even better. That is the mark of a great album, and that is why it is my number one this year.
Well. There you have it. My top ten for 2017. I bet NONE of these will be on most lists.
Thanks for reading.