THIS IS not another top 10 list. Instead, it’s a musical muse over some of the best 2017 releases.
Maybe you’ll hate these picks. Maybe you’ll love them. The beauty of music is how 12 notes can be combined with infinite rhythms and styles to create something individual.
Here are a few releases I’ve loved from 2017. I hope you enjoy them, too. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding“The War on Drugs should be playing stadiums,” said Craig Kallman, CEO of Atlantic Records, back in 2015, just after The War on Drugs (TWoD) signed with them. With TWoD combining the familiar sounds of Springsteen, Tom Petty, Eagles, Joy Division, via their completely unique ambient style, stadiums could work. Especially if they lead with tracks from A Deeper Understanding.Melodic and ethereal, A Deeper Understanding is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the year. Packed with layers of experimental guitar effects, drum-machine rhythms, and dreamy keyboard sequences, TWoD have created an album both perfect for solo night drives through the city, and languid evening dinners.It’s more consistent than their previous release Lost in the Dream, though perhaps less surprising. Still, this album is probably the safest musical investment you can make.
White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band Raw. Arrogant. Loud.Punk-pop-rock won’t be for everyone, but this short album hits you like a sudden punch in the face during a dreary, drunken streetfight.There are cutting, distorted vocals. Technical, memorable guitar licks. Drum loops rumble and thud.A friend of mine described White Reaper as MGMT blended with The Clash. That is probably the best description of their sound, however it undersells the excellence of this album.Amidst a musical stage of mediocrity, White Reaper have entered the fray, taken the microphone, screamed into it, thrashed the guitar, and then smashed everything to tiny fucking pieces.Best album of the year.
Dan Auerbach – Waiting on a Song Mediocre overall, but with a couple of top toe-tapping tunes.With guest appearances from a range of different musicians (including a brief Mark Knopfler cameo), Dan Auerbach accurately replicates a sixties sound of jangly guitars, rock n’ roll beats, and ‘do-wop’ lyrical passages.The title track is perhaps the best song here, alongside King of a One Horse Town. Perfect for a chirpy weekend afternoon, when you feel like dancing around the room.
Tift Merritt – Stitch of the World This year, I witnessed perhaps the greatest double-act gig I’ve seen so far: Tift Merritt supporting Jason Isbell.For those in the know, this a superb line-up from two of the greatest country-folk singer-songwriters today.For those not in the know, please talk to someone in the know.Merritt’s sentimental, soulful singing skips right through poetic passages on love, loss, and hope. An emotional album – peaking with tracks such as Icarus or Something Came Over Me – it’s part-protest, part-confessional songwriting, and part-traditional country.Oddly, the title track is perhaps the weakest, but the other stunners on here more than compensate.I met Merritt at the gig, too. None of this musical stuff is an act; the stories you hear on the record are genuine, heartfelt, and touching. Stitch of the World is Tift Merritt.
Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound From the slow, reflective opener Last of my Kind, to the closing Something To Love message to Isbell’s daughter, Isbell tells tales of hard work, racism, resistance, and belonging in a sensitive yet daring fashion.Note as rocky as I hoped, but not necessarily worse for it, this album follows a man trying to figure out the world around him – a world that changes faster than the thoughts he has trying to understand it.Isbell beautifully recreates the album live, too.
Queens of the Stone Age – Villains It’s a shame to praise this album given Josh Homme’s recent assault of a female photographer at a concert. It certainly taints an otherwise strong year for QoTSA.However, this funky, rocky, and definitely daring release blends Mark Ronson’s pop expertise and QoTSA’s unique brand of hard rock into a sharp, strong cocktail.It’s one that makes you remark ‘oof’ when you digest it. But it’s also a rare, potent cocktail that won’t give you a hangover. You’ll come back for more and more, and never tire (even if Homme can be insufferable).
St. Vincent – Masseduction Grinding guitars, electronic drums, and frank observations – St. Vincent (pictured, left) takes typical pop riffs and mixes them with infuses them with Bowie, Pink Floyd, and Talking Heads.It’s a bit odd in places, and certainly is tough to place on the musical genre spectrum. But that’s exactly the point: who gives a shit?It sounds solid, polished, and nuanced, and deftly approaches themes of sex, sadness, and success.Perhaps not the album I’ll return to as much as others on the list, and one which I feel will be overshadowed by the mystique of St. Vincent rather than the decent music on offer here. Yet it’s an album that made me think: ‘This is some good shit.’
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy Fleet Foxes are overrated. Josh Tillman is underrated.Comparisons to Elton John are frequent, and deserved; the title track could have been lifted directly from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.Lyrics range from loneliness, to parenting, to sex, to iron deficiency, to death, to political perspectives, to stealing bedsheets from an amputee. This album has the knack of making you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same song.Too many songs outstay their welcome, though the wit within them still hits hard.(Footnote: Tillman also performed perhaps the best dedication to Tom Petty in 2017, with a soft rendition of To Find a Friend. I recommend finding it online.)
J Dilla – Donuts Alright, this isn’t a 2017 release. However, while talking to Marcus, the owner of my local vinyl store, I asked what the most popular album this year has been.“J Dilla stuff, for sure,” he said. “Donuts especially. The overall vibe of his stuff, the beats, the mixing, and his story all combine to make something totally unique. And it’s all made with samples too, which some people think is totally fucking crazy.”Spot on.Not so much a conventional album; more of a musical tapestry. Think Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, but drenched in hip-hop.J Dilla’s resurgence partly owes to the popularity of vinyl; his stuff sounds sublime on the turntable whether at home, in a bar, or in a club.This album oozes class, and easily swaggers its way into the ‘best of’ this year recap. Even if it is 11 years old.