It was a difficult year for many. Music provided relief and re-assurance as we struggled with a changing world and our place in it. Long-time artists, some on their 22nd or 23rd albums, released the most hopeful and joyful albums of their careers. Others gave us moody, reflective and mysterious records. Throughout, music echoed the many emotions and stories of our lives.
It was a great year for music and that alone provided solace and wonder. If you missed any of the following releases, then you’re in for a treat. I’ve picked my 11 favorites to which I turned again and again for amazement and comfort. (There are two #10’s as I just couldn’t pick between them!) Dip in and explore. Let the talents of today’s musicians swirl around and embrace you!
We look forward with confidence that 2018 will bring more amazing story telling and more lively musical exploration. As 2017, next year will likely challenge and confront us, but we can be assured that we have great companions along for the ride.
Eq. 10. James Holden & The Animal Spirits – “Animal Spirits” (Border Community)
Mystical and magical, James Holden carries us into an openly experimental mélange of free jazz, prog rock, electronica and North African trance mysticism. In the same vein as Pharaoh Sanders and Don Cherry, this album is euphoric and giddy. The result of a single take (with no overdubs), with all the players in the one room (including Tom Page, frenetic drummer from Rocketnumbernine, and Etienne Jaumet, saxophone player extraordinaire), it is chaotic, full of improvisation and adventure.
Eq. 10. Four Tet – “New Energy” (Temporary Residence)
Down-tempo beats from Kieren Hebden (recording as Four Tet), this intricately woven mix sketches a broad pallet of today’s electronica. There is both a warmth and an inner calm and joy on this album, his 9th. The textures float and melt, the samples and tempos are expansive and intriguing. Like some of my other favorite electronic performers (Tycho, Floating Points, Bonobo, etc.), this is peaceful and gentle music but still danceworthy and percussive.
9. Ibeyi – “Ash” (XL Recordings)
Delightful harmonies from French-Cuban twins, Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, float over strong, propulsive beats.bIbeyi make statements of power, resistance and resilience. Their father was the world-renowned Cuban percussionist Anga Díaz, a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, but their musical traditions go further back through West African ancestors brought to Cuba as slaves. When pressed, Lisa-Kaindé suggests, “I usually say [our music] is negro spirituals but in a contemporary way”.
This album is an expression of girl-power, with the twins effortlessly switching between English, French, Spanish and Yoruba. With musical assistance from Kamasi Washington, Meshell Ndegeocello, Mala Rodriguez and Chilly Gonzales, Ash is an album of brightness and global fusion.
8. Ron Gallo – “Heavy Meta” (New West Records)
Kick out the jams with this garage pop-punk album from Philadelphia-born (now in Nashville) Ron Gallo. Full of sarcasm and snide, these are songs of keen social perception and self-deprecation. Titles such as ‘Young Lady You’re Scaring Me”, “Put the Kids to Bed”, and “All the Punks are Domesticated” capture the world towards which Gallo turns his searing and unmodulated honesty. Angry and cathartic, this album features blistering and searing guitars as well as rollicking, driving rhythms. But, it is the sneer you’ll remember.
7. Aimee Mann – “Mental Illness” (Superego Records)
The craft of writing enduring songs is a lifetime study. Aimee Mann, whom many still identify as one of the singers in 80’s band Til Tuesday, demonstrates that with experience comes a well-honed excellence. On Mental Illness, she demonstrates grace and a quiet confidence even as she struggles with sadness, alienation and remorse. Teaming up with her favorite session musicians, as well as Both-accomplice Teo Leo, Aimee Mann is poignant and witty on this accomplished record which is full of memorable, personable songs.
6. Curtis Harding – “Face Your Fear” (ANTI-)
Vintage soul with a contemporary feel is having a moment right now. And Curtis Harding helps lead the field, paying homage to the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes but with a modern sheen courtesy of producer BJ “Dangermouse” Burton. Parallels to Lenny Kravitz are inevitable as both Kravitz and Harding have swagger and style.
5. Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra – “Paradise Has No Border” (Nacional Records)
Heading out with their 22nd album, these 10 champions of the Tokyo music underground all share a love of ska music. Some are talented jazz musicians, others are into dub and reggae, while others are very punk at heart. Singing in English, Spanish and Japanese, they call for a love of energetic and infectious music to unite us all. Known for foot-stomping live performances, this record is full of horns, drums, surf guitar and great helpings of fun.
4. Paul Kelly – “Life Is Fine” (Cooking Vinyl)
Paul Kelly is a master storyteller and his songs have become part of the soundtrack of his native Australia. On Life is Fine, his 23rd recording, he is by turns soulful and rocking out, almost positively chirpy in places. Reminiscent of his classic releases of the 1980’s and 90’s (such as Gossip, Post, Under The Sun), Kelly is capably supported by a crack live band and the soulful, funky harmonies of Vika & Linda Bull. Life is, indeed, fine.
3. Slowdive – “Slowdive” (Dead Oceans)
Shoe-gaze and post-rock don’t have to be alienating musical terms. The music is all swirls and swells. It is all about the slow build and the impending tempo shift. Glittering and shimmering, ethereal and earthy, this is music that has space to breath and solid feet to walk upon. It is wall-of-sound guitars with whispery, sweet pop vocals.
While I am a fan of U.S. bands that are less pretty and more angular (such as Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine), it seems the Brits define the genre – I’m thinking here of Mogwai, Cocteau Twins, Lush, and Jesus & The Mary Chain. It may be 22 years since the last Slowdive album, but it seems as though this English band hasn’t missed a beat.
2. The National – “Sleep Well Beast” (4AD)
Bands age and their attentions change. As the musicians mature, their concerns can become well-rounded and deeply reflective. In Sleep Well Beast, The National have produced one of their most refined and well-crafted albums. It is brooding and moody, but still with an art rock swagger and sway. The dominant mood is a simmering melancholy, as they contemplate and struggle with disintegrating relationships.
Occasionally described as America’s Radiohead, with a complex interplay between the individually accomplished musicians, this is one of the most sonically satisfying rock albums of the year. The National are a band at the top of their game and it shows.
1. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister - “Planetarium” (4AD)
Collaborative and visionary, this concept album was born as a live production. On stage, as a commission from the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, this would have been an expansionary experience. Modern classical composer and arranger Nico Muhly teams up with guitarist Bryce Dessner (from the National), the adventurous singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and his drumming buddy James McAlister. Toss in a string quartet and a consort of seven trombones. It is part rock opera and space symphony, part ambient sojourn, and part expansive song cycle. Planetarium reflects on the solar system and all the pushes and pulls of human existence.
Like Bon Iver’s magnificent album from last year (22, A Million), Planetarium can be discordant and confronting and it is a lengthy listen at 75 minutes. But, is an album to which I return and find brilliance and bounty at every turn. An exceptional, one-of-a-kind journey that is full of beauty and wonder. I can only hope and trust that it returns as a live performance. I’ll be waiting with expectation.
Ten more favorites of 2017 (in alphabetical order):
- Aldous Harding – “Party” (4AD)
- Beck – “Colors” (Capitol)
- Caroline Keys – “Mean to Stay” (Dirt Wave)
- Low Cut Connie – “Dirty Pictures (part 1)” (Contender Records)
- Juana Molina – “Halo” (Crammed Discs)
- Public Service Broadcasting, “Every Valley” (Play It Again Sam)
- Sampha – “Process” (Young Turks)
- Moses Sumney – “Aromanticism” (JagJaguar)
- The War on Drugs – “A Deeper Understanding” (Atlantic)
- The xx – “I See You” (Young Turks)
Zed hosts "Freeforms" at 11 a.m., Mondays on MTPR. He returns in 2018 with more great new releases from across the musical genres.