On the one hand, there really is an incredible amount of great music out there, and on the other hand, as I noted last year, I’m not listening to music as much, or with as much focus, as I did in the past. Yet, I’m still going to opine about my favorite music of 2017, because I set up this blog to write about music, and that’s what music writers do, right? And despite my protestations, there’s a lot of music discussed below.
My Favorite Albums of 2017:
If you know me at all, either personally or through my music writing, you have to have expected that my clear favorite album of 2017 was Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. This is the one album from last year that I listened to regularly and which has stuck with me. It rocks harder than his last two albums (which were credited to Isbell only), and yet the songwriting remains as personal, as poignant and as political as anything that he’s done. As a result The Nashville Sound came in first, or very high, on many year-end lists, and I’m proud to add this one to the pile.
I don’t think there’s a bad track on the album, but “If We Were Vampires” stands out, and “Hope the High Road” and “White Man’s World” aren’t far behind (and if I were writing this on a different day, I might pick different songs). My write up of the band’s live cover of “Whipping Post,” as the 50th best cover of 2017 can be found here.
Check out this video interview of Isbell by George Saunders, award winning novelist, for a mutual love-fest, and an interesting discussion of their crafts.
The rest of the albums that I liked, in alphabetical order by artist name:
Nicole Atkins, Goodnight Rhonda Lee–A collection of retro-sounding pop/soul/country/blues (if you are thinking Dusty Springfield, you are on the right track) from a Jersey girl relocated to Nashville who is dealing with her personal demons. Too many good songs to pick just one.
Bash & Pop, Anything Could Happen—Tommy Stinson, former Replacement, revives the Bash & Pop name for a very Replacements sounding collection of rockers. “On The Rocks” was one of my favorite tracks of the year.
Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, John Medeski & John Scofield, Hudson—Four top instrumentalists join together for an interesting, beautiful collection of jazz originals and jazzy covers of rock songs. My favorite is their cover of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek,” which ramps up the New Orleans funk.
Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway—Although it is mostly an album of originals, the title track is a cover of a classic Staples Singers song, which finished at no. 7 in Cover Me‘s best cover songs of 2017. There, I wrote this: “If Rhiannon Giddens continues to release albums as good and significant as Freedom Highway for a few decades, she might become an American treasure like Mavis Staples.” A wonderful, socially conscious and musically interesting, collection from a true rising star.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman—Jones’ death in 2016, while not a surprise considering her well-documented fight with cancer, was a real loss. I wrote this about a month before she died, and if you are interested in her remarkable career, check it out. Soul of a Woman was recorded during periods of remission and strength, and it doesn’t sound either like a collection of songs by someone facing death, or a performance by an ailing singer. It is, like any other of her albums, a mix of upbeat and contemplative soul music, and it would be a worthy addition to her canon of work, even if it wasn’t given extra attention because it was released posthumously. The first song, “Matter of Time,” is my favorite, and every time I hear it, I think the beginning sounds like something by The Tedeschi-Trucks Band.
Aimee Mann, Mental Illness—A sad, beautiful collection of songs by a singer probably known best for sad, beautiful songs, despite her sharp sense of humor. Depressing, to some degree, but sometimes that’s what you want to hear. And she does it so well. The oddly titled “Goose Snow Cone” is my favorite track.
The Mavericks, Brand New Day–I don’t think that this is the best Mavericks album, but it is a solid one, and even that is good enough to make my favorites list. It may be that, like the Grateful Dead or Phish, The Mavericks’ studio albums pale so much in comparison to their incendiary live shows, that you simply have to look at them as raw material to be improved on stage. If I have to pick a favorite track, I’ll go with “Easy As It Seems,” a Latin jazz influenced tune inspired by the divisiveness engendered by our last presidential election. And it is hard to get enough of Raul Malo’s voice. Also, a shout out to the band’s sax player, fellow Tiger Max Abrams, whose jazzy Christmas CDs (which feature a couple of songs sung by Malo) brightened up my holiday season.
Old 97’s, Graveyard Whistling—With the Old 97’s you pretty much know what you are going to get. As I wrote last year about a collection of covers of the band’s songs, “Their songs tend to break down into two basic styles: one with a loping, country feel, and the other with a more pop sensibility, although always retaining some Texas twang.” The band’s prior album was more on the sloppy, loose side and looked back on the excesses on their long career. Graveyard Whistling keeps basically the same formula, but with a little more polish, and the songs look forward to the consequences of their actions. I enjoyed a bunch of the songs, but the hopeful, if ultimately chilling “Good With God,” featuring Brandi Carlile as the Supreme Being, stood out. Although I liked the sly humor of “Jesus Loves You,” too.
Although I haven’t done the research, I feel confident in stating that Bob Dylan is one of the most covered artists of all time, and certainly of artists who emerged after 1960. So, if you are going to cover Dylan, you really need to bring your A game, or get lost in the clutter. In fact, our forthcoming Best Cover Songs of 2017 list is dotted with Dylan covers that excel, including one from Joan Osborne’s excellent tribute album. So, how does Osborne succeed, start to finish, in interpreting 13 Dylan songs, both famous and not-so-famous (it is hard to actually consider any of his songs to be “obscure”)? By making them her own and imbuing them with the soulfulness and sexiness that elevate her best work. It also doesn’t hurt that she is in excellent voice, and backed by a tight group of musicians playing strong, but not intrusive, arrangements that allow the quality of the songs to shine.
It’s all good–if I had to pick a standout, it would be “Tangled Up In Blue.”
Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins–Another great album from the underrated Prophet, with his usual sharp songwriting, a tight band, and his usual charming drawl. As a fan of both Friday Night Lights and Nashville (and Spin City), I appreciated the song “If I Was Connie Britton,” but my favorite track on the album is “Bad Year For Rock And Roll,” a meditation on the slew of great musicians who died in 2016.
Real Estate, In Mind–Real Estate is a band that has snuck up on me over the last couple of years, but their catchy pop/dreamy psychedelia mix is infectious. They have a new guitarist on this album, but I’m not that much of a fan to really notice the difference. Check out the leadoff track, “Darling.”
Josh Ritter, Gathering–Ritter is another long-time favorite–his regular appearances at the Clearwater Festival are always a highlight. Gathering is maybe the most folky, rootsy album he’s made, and it may not be a coincidence that it follows a collaboration with Bob Weir on his 2016 album (and Weir duets with Ritter on one song on this album). If I had to highlight one track, it would be “Showboat,” which owes more than a little debt to “Gentle On My Mind.”
Son Volt, Notes Of Blue–No matter how much Jay Farrar tries to claim that Son Volt albums are different, at the end of the day, I basically don’t hear it. Which is fine, because whatever he does, with whatever musicians are in Son Volt, sounds good to me. The songwriting and playing are always great, and then there’s that voice. Notes Of Blue is supposedly influenced by American blues and folk, and British folk, and I guess I hear it, but it is just a good Son Volt album. I fell in love with “Back Against The Wall” the first time I heard it. Now, I’ve seen Son Volt a bunch of times, and they are always excellent live, but it is a shame that Farrar basically shows zero evidence that he is enjoying himself. I mean, if he was digging ditches for a living, I could see looking dour and unhappy during a shift, but when you are rocking out on stage in front of a sold out crowd, smile occasionally.
Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black–If you’ve read this far, and if so, I commend your perseverance, you know how I feel about Mavis Staples. And her late career resurgence has been fueled by a collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced this album and wrote the songs (Mavis gets three co-writing credits). Tweedy also produced two of her last three albums, and if you watch the 2015 HBO documentary Mavis! you can see how close the two Chicago-based musicians are. In fact, in the liner notes, she refers to Tweedy’s son Spencer, who contributes percussion to the album, as her “grandson,” and how cool is that? The album has an edge to it, as if Staples, a veteran of the civil rights movement, can’t believe that we are dealing with similar problems again, but because she is who she is, it is clear that she believes there is still hope. Thus, she can still believe that “We Go High,” even when many of us are getting tired of that road. The title track is my highlight song, but it is a fine album from start to finish.
Matthew Sweet, Tomorrow Forever/Tomorrow’s Daughter–I’m not sure if the Tomorrow’s Daughter collection is available commercially–I got it because I was a Kickstarter supporter of Tomorrow Forever, but in any event, what you get is an excellent album (or 2) of typical Matthew Sweet power pop. I’ve seen Sweet perform a couple of times, and I have to say that they were two of the most fun concerts I’ve been to–not necessarily the best–because the music is upbeat and catchy, without being stupid. Again, the leadoff track, “Trick,” is my favorite.
Jeff Tweedy, Together at Last–Very simple–this is a Jeff Tweedy solo acoustic album in which he performs stripped down versions of 11 songs that he wrote: 9 Wilco songs, a Loose Fur song and a Golden Smog song. If you like Wilco and Tweedy, and I do (and are OK with acoustic guitar versions of songs), you will like this album. If not, you won’t. My favorite song is “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” originally on Wilco’s great Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album.
Albums I Haven’t Paid Close Enough Attention To
Whether it has been a lack of time, or because I just haven’t purchased them yet (yeah, I like to own my music).
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice–The one song that I’ve heard from this collaboration between two quirky singer/songwriters, “Continental Breakfast,” shouldn’t work, but it does–it sounds like two friends talking about their friendship and their life. Pitchfork said that the album “feels less like a collection of traditional duets than an overheard discussion between two misfits who just met at an Existentialists Anonymous meeting.” Sounds kinda interesting, doesn’t it?
Ray Davies, Americana–The great Kinks frontman backed by The Jayhawks should also make for an interesting combination.
Hiss Golden Messenger-Hallelujah Anyhow–Well done Americana band that I’ve started to get into, first because I thought the singer was Dan Bern (but is actually M.C. Taylor) . Also with some Van Morrison soul references, as in the one song I’m most familiar with, “Domino (Time Will Tell)” (there’s also a song called “Caledonia, My Love.“).
Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Navigator–Another band that is a fairly recent discovery for me, it is led by Alynda Segarra. The album is both a reflection of her Puerto Rican roots (and the problems that face that island, even before the latest hurricane devastation), and life in New York. “Hungry Ghost” was the song that first caught my ear from this one.
Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet–An album of folk & country covers (and one original) from these remarkable sisters, produced by Teddy Thompson.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real–The self-titled album from Willie’s son’s band, which has also backed Neil Young, is reminiscent of both artists, but has a more diverse sound, as demonstrated by the guest vocals from Lady Gaga on the excellent, soulful “Find Yourself,” as well as contributions from Lucius and Dad, among others.
Offa Rex, The Queen Of Hearts–One of my favorite bands, The Decemberists, teams up with English vocalist Olivia Chaney to “jump[ ] into a wormhole to come out the other side as Fairport Convention.” Right up my alley.
The Rails, Other People–Speaking of Fairport Convention, The Rails are a duo featuring married couple Kami Thompson, daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson, and James Walbourne, who has played with, among others, The Pretenders and The Pogues.
Joan Shelley–And speaking of Richard Thompson, I first learned of Joan Shelley when I saw her open for Thompson. Her self-titled album, produced by Jeff Tweedy (that guy, again, who, by the way, also produced Thompson’s last album of new material), sounds like a mix between Fairport and American folk.
U2, Songs of Experience–I’ve liked U2 since Boy, and while they may no longer be as big a deal as they once were, this album has been getting mostly good reviews, so I want to give it a chance.
The War On Drugs, A Deeper Understanding–This band, actually the alter ego of Adam Granduciel, is another that I’m just beginning to appreciate, and this album is getting consistent raves. I like both the uptempo “Holding On,” and the slower “Pain.”
Songs Not Mentioned Above
Arcade Fire w/ Mavis Staples “I Give You Power”–Released on the eve of the Racist-In-Chief’s inauguration, a synth-heavy song improved by Staples vocals, its message, and the fact that proceeds from its sale were donated to the ACLU.
Bedouine, “One Of These Days”–Azniv Korkejian, born in Syria of Armenian descent, now lives in L.A. and records as Bedouine. “One Of These Days,” is a languorous song that she says is “an optimistic outlook on wanting to speak the same language as someone, or at least close enough for you both to feel loved. ”
Dan Auerbach, “Shine on Me”–Jaunty pop tune from the Black Keys frontman, with Mark Knopfler on guitar.
Phoebe Bridgers, “Motion Sickness”–Dreamy voiced Bridgers rocks a little on this clever sad/angry breakup song.
The Lone Bellow, “Is It Ever Gonna Be Easy”–On a song (and album) produced by Dave Cobb, the Americana producer of the day (including The Nashville Sound), The Lone Bellow broaden their sound, but still stay true to their roots.
Laura Marling, “Nothing Not Nearly”–I don’t always like Laura Marling, but when I do, I really do (which is why her 2017 album, Semper Femina, didn’t make my list). This is a strange song, with Marling singing what sounds like twice as many words as necessary over slow, bluesy music, but it works.
Mondo Cozmo, “Shine”–Mondo Cozmo is the project of Joshua Ostrander, and “Shine” is the kind of song that people used to raise their lighters to during the sing along chorus. It’s so good, and its message is so hopeful, that I’m willing to overlook the overtly religious stuff.
Portugal. The Man, “Feel It Still”–Not my usual cup of tea, this dance pop confection is just so damn catchy. And it samples The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” It is nice to know that something good can come out of Wasilla, Alaska.
Margo Price, “A Little Pain”–A little Muscle Shoals influenced country soul from an up and coming artist.
Earl St. Clair, “Ain’t Got It Like That”–Another departure for me, this one is a funky, soul tune with a rap in the middle. But yeah, it’s great and will stick in your head for days.
This Is The Kit, “Moonshine Freeze”–The alter ego of British musician Kate Stables, “Moonshine Freeze” makes lyrics about triangles and “cycles of three,” fascinating.
Concerts That I Enjoyed
I spend probably too much of my disposable income on live music, but really, what’s a better use? All listings are in alphabetical order.
At the great Tarrytown Music Hall, we saw many shows; these were the best:
Cry, Cry, Cry reunion–Great to see them back together again, and looking like they were having fun.
The Jayhawks (with Johnny Irion)–Typical great, tight set, with contributions from Irion and his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie, who looked like she was having a blast.
Matthew Sweet (with Tommy Keene, who sadly died in November)–As I said above, just fun, and great music.
Richard Thompson (with Joan Shelley)–He never disappoints, and Shelley was a revelation.
At the beautiful Beacon Theater in NYC:
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (with The Mountain Goats)–sadly, I didn’t like The Mountain Goats as much as I had hoped, but we did get an epic cover of “Whipping Post,” by Isbell and the band.
King Crimson–Three drummers!! At the front of the stage!! And Robert Fripp!!
The Tedeschi-Trucks Band–So talented, such a great band, so many people on stage, but why wouldn’t the crowd stop talking?
Clearwater Festival–So happy that it came back after a controversial year off. A discussion of the festival, and the incredible bands that we saw there is here.
Tommy Emmanuel–A Clearwater Festival discovery. A veteran guitar virtuoso that I somehow had never heard of. He has an album coming out this year featuring collaborations with, among others, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Rodney Crowell, Jorma Kaukonen, David Grisman, Jerry Douglas, and Jake Shimabukuro.
Old King Crimson–more like a rediscovery. After seeing them live, I went back and listened to some of their albums from the 1970s, including Lizard, Islands, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, and Starless And Bible Black which I haven’t played in a while (I’ve listened to Red often in the past), and was reminded at how innovative, experimental, and interesting they were, even if not everything works.
Jerrod “Blind Boy” Paxton–Another Clearwater Festival discovery. Part African American, part Native American, of Cajun descent, and who is a practicing Jew. Performing on piano, fiddle, banjo, guitar and harmonica (and the spoons), Paxton focuses on blues and jazz from the 1920s and 30s.
Joan Shelley–See above. Great singer and songwriter.
I guess that my one big musical disappointment this year is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducting Bon Jovi. That they are getting in, while King Crimson, Richard Thompson, and Los Lobos, for example, aren’t, renders the Hall kind of a joke. Although kudos for finding room for Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I guess I should have listed them last year, when they let in Journey.