Albums of 2017, Rock N’ Angst Edition

My end-of-year music lists for 2017 are five: a big collection of songs released that I liked and keep listening to, three cluster of albums I loved and that suit different moods, and, finally, on December 29th, my “A List” of songs for the year.

My second cluster of albums is for brow-furrowing and fist-pumping.

Japandroids, Near To The Wild Heart of Life (self-released)

This Canadian rock duo has been orbiting my ears for years, but it wasn’t until the release of this album that I actually paid them any real attention. Then I couldn’t turn them off. This is a collection of edgy pop melodies riding a train of heavy guitar riffs and north-of-the-border pathos. “No Known Drink Or Drug” is a standout record that features the kind of lyric you commit to memory on purpose:

“When winter’s off the leash and on the loose/we ward off the weather with a witch’s brew/of dominoes, prose, and Delta Blues”

It’s only 8 songs long, but there’s nary a miss on the album.

 

British Sea Power, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party (Golden Chariot)

I will not be a bad bohemian.

I will not be a bad bohemian.

I will not be a bad bohemian.

It’s a testament to the clarity of songs like “Bad Bohemian” that more than the words but also the conviction behind them get irremediably stuck in your head after listening to Let The Dancers Inherit The Party a few times. The first full-length record on the album does it better than all the others.

These are big rock songs with big guitar riffs and big British vocals, good for pounding the pavement to. Then there is “What You’re Doing,” which is a delightful little change of pace (and vocalist).

 

Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger In The Alps (Dead Oceans)

After you’ve heard “Motion Sickness” for the first time and thought, “Why do I like that so much?”, you check the label that released it and find that its roster also includes Mitski, Destroyer, Pinegrove, and The Tallest Man on Earth, and then it makes sense.

Phoebe Bridgers is the best thing I discovered in 2017.

The songs on Stranger In The Alps are mostly minimalist things. “Motion Sickness” is the only one with a prominent electric guitar part. But they all drive rhythms you can’t resist, and they all bleed. They mine the mistakes of the self-defeating, but without lacking joy and without falling into a trope.

Oh, and there’s a Conor Oberst cameo.

Win.

 

Aimee Mann, Mental Illness (SuperEgo)

Nobody writes a haunting melody like Aimee Mann. She’s be doing it for parts of four decades now. Mental Illness is an album of melodies that I swear would work with no musical accompaniment, so the plucking strings and light-touch piano that carry most of the songs do amazing work.

On the surface, this album doesn’t belong in the same collection with Japandroids and British Sea Power, but when you let Mann’s lyrics soak in you realize that, of themselves, they have the same snarling effect as the big drum kit.

 

Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound (Southeastern Records)

So this is a country album from a preeminent “Alt Country” voice. It belongs on this angsty shelf, though, because the best songs on it are ones that voice the mood of our day better than anything anyone else is doing. Like this:

Last year was a sonofabitch/for nearly everyone we know/but I ain’t fightin’ with you down in the ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road.

“Hope The High Road,” “White Man’s World,” “Cumberland Gap,” and (!) “Anxiety” are all in this vein. They feel like important songs. You want people to hear them and think about them. My man is a poet in the lineage of Guy Clark.

 

Next week: fun!

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