HONORABLE MENTION: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Perhaps not as definitive a statement as 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but a stellar album nonetheless by the preeminent MC of our present moment.
HONORABLE MENTION: Nikki Lane – Highway Queen
A solid set of shitkicking tunes by the Nashville songstress.
HONORABLE MENTION: David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanack
This is the first release primarily written by Dave Rawlings without an assist from his partner Gillian Welch and the first release credited to David Rawlings and not the Dave Rawlings Machine. If many of these melodies sound familiar, that’s intentional. Rawlings sought to recycle old melodies in true folk tradition. The results are exciting and at times breathtakingly beautiful. “Airplane” chokes me up every time I hear it.
10. Deer Tick – Deer Tick, Vol. 1 & Deer Tick, Vol. 2
I’m cheating here, as these are actually two separate albums, but taken together, these two simultaneously-released albums showcase the razor-sharp songwriting of a now soberish John McCauley. Vol. 1 is acoustic. Vol. 2 is electric. See these guys live if you get a chance, as they are one of the truly terrific live outfits out there.
9. Thundercat – Drunk
Bizzarro pocket songs about existential, twenty-first century unease? Jazz-R&B fusion featuring one of the best bassists in the known universe? Okay, you have my attention.
8. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
In the pitch black fictional universe constructed by Kurt Vonnegut, there’s a hotel lounge pianist named Bunny Hoover. Father John Misty, nee Josh Tillman, is Hoover come to life. In Vonnegut’s Jailbird, the narrator notes, “No American is so old and poor and friendless that he cannot make a collection of some of the most exquisite little ironies.” Tillman sings of and from those collections of exquisite little ironies. Is it an act? Is it real? Ah, these are the same questions asked of Vonnegut, America’s bitingest and bleakest satirist. In singing the songs of human’s follies, of pure comedy, fact and fiction melt together and what’s left is Truth.
7. The National – Sleep Well Beast
The ceaselessly bleating take machines are telling us to abandon The National, but for my money, they’re still making interesting, challenging, and pretty music. The rock critics I grew up with were seemingly contractually obligated to publish a positive review of every piece of shit album Weezer ever released, but now we’re getting off board because The National introduced some digital elements to their sound? Get the fuck out of here.
6. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
I suspect this isn’t the best jazz album released in 2017, but Kamasi Washington is one of the few artists working in the jazz oeuvre trying to crossover to a more a mainstream audience. Like his frequent collaborator Kendrick Lamar and Butterfly, this release does not compare to 2015’s The Epic; however, the ideas, themes, and grooves explored herein are certainly worth your time. In a stressful year for The Culture, I found myself returning to this album often; its melodies cut through the din of a chaotic year and resonated deeply.
5. HAIM – Something To Tell You
This album just plain slaps. Listening to this album the other day, I found myself thinking back to the period where Weezer’s (I’m so, so sorry there are multiple references to Weezer in this post) Rivers Cuomo made a big to-do about how he was a student of pop music, taking an academic approach to pop song-craft. Well, the songs he wrote in that era mostly sucked, but the songs on this album sound like they were written by artists truly studying pop music. These are just expertly crafted pop songs. I can’t recommend this set enough.
4. Tyler Childers – Purgatory
I think it’s important to remember that before guys like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson came around, an album like this one from Childers would have never existed. This album is still a revelation. Here we have a song cycle about redemption and rebirth, a Divine Right’s Trip for 2017.
3. Joan Shelley – Joan Shelley
Louisville-native Joan Shelley and her primary collaborator, Nathan Salsburg, do the Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings thing, but there are also, at times, shades of Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny in Shelley’s voice. On this release, Shelley and Salsburg headed to Chicago to record in Wilco’s famed Loft. Jeff Tweedy produced and played some bass and guitar and his son Spencer played drums on this record. Mixed by Tom Schick, this is a damn fine sounding record.
2. Big Thief – Capacity
With two incredibly strong releases in two years, Big Thief have quickly ascended to the best band out there. There is so much subtlety to both their playing and their songwriting, and I find myself hanging on their every word, on their every note. They are utterly captivating.
1. St. Vincent – Masseduction
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I think Annie Clark is the most interesting and best artist of the past decade. She has taken and carried the weirdo avant-rock torch valiantly. When I found out she was turning in a more poppy direction and collaborating with Lena Dunham’s boyfriend and Taylor Swift collaborator Anton Jackoff, I was very scared. I was very worried. My fear was unjustified. Are these songs poppier than her past work? Maybe? The skronky guitar is notably absent, but otherwise, this is just another fantastic batch of tunes from Annie. The ballads in particular shine, and the title track gets my nomination for the slapper of the year.