Albums of 2017, Fun-Filled Pop 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.

I have a list of Twangy Songstress albums.

I have a list of Rock N’ Angst albums.

And I have a list of Fun-Filled Pop albums.

Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins (Belle Sound)

It probably doesn’t find anyone’s definition of “pop,” but Bobby Fuller . . . is good clean fun. Chuck Prophet knows his way around rock and blues, but he has a distinctive vocal style that brings a unique kind of life to these songs, even the ones about death (“Bad Year for Rock And Roll” and “Alex Nieto”). The man can write a ballad, too. “We Got Up And Played” is a timeless tip-of-the-hat to showing up and going to work, and “Open Up Your Heart” is exactly what the title promises: a schmoozy love song but with teeth.

 

Beck, Colors (Fonograf)

An 11-song sprint through an aggressive course of synthesizers, drum machines, and just about every other technical and artistic convention of pop music ever devised: that’s Colors. It’s almost exhausting how much fun it is. I’ve never gone in for Beck, and I expect the people who have don’t like this album. It’s kind of an all-in pop experiment, and I love it. “No Distraction” and “Wow” are standouts, but Colors really deserves to be queued up in order and blasted straight through.

 

Barenaked Ladies And The Persuasions, Ladies And Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies And The Persuasions (Rainin’ Records)

It might seem weak to go all daffy over an album of covers, but this one won’t be ignored. It’s a collaboration between what seemed at the start of 2017 to be a has-been north-of-the-border uber pop outfit and a New York a capella group with roots in the 60’s. They got together in October of 2016 and recorded 15 songs live-off-the-floor. BNL standards sung by soulful R&B singers and arranged more acoustically is a recipe for magic that lots and lots of people can enjoy. “Don’t Shuffle Me Back” was the unofficial anthem of my junior high mission trip last summer.

 

Barenaked Ladies, Fake Nudes (Rainin’ Records)

If the success of their collaboration with The Persuasions led you to think that the only future for BNL is creative new machinations of their old material, think again. Fake Nudes is all new material. It features the quirky best of what these guys have always done (clever wordplay ballads like “Canada Dry”) but that also does it in a way that feels poignantly suited to the day (note the album title’s nod to “fake news” and its poetic takedown of a signature Trump project, “Invisible Fence.”)

“Navigate” and “Sunshine” display a depth of sentiment the old BNL catalog hasn’t accustomed you to. “Bringing It Home” and “Lookin’ Up” are the old cheese-and-macaroni standards their fans have always loved.

 

Paramore, After Laughter (Atlantic Recordings)

Okay, so Landon won me over on this one. I mean, “Rose-Colored Boy” was in my rotation all summer and fall, but it was November before I gave After Laughter the start-to-finish treatment. Turns out it’s a cohesive synth-powered pop project full of lyrical surprises.

Low Key. No pressure. Just hang with me and my weather.

You just get the sense that Hayley Williams and company know what they’re doing behind their keyboards and drums, sparing guitar riffs, and “Ba da ba da da da”s “Fake Happy,” “Caught In The Middle,” and “Hard Times” might make you dance. “26” might make you cry. “Forgiveness” might make you do both at once.

 

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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!

Albums of 2017, Twangy Songstress Edition

It’s time for the annual review of music. There are four Fridays left in December. Three of them will feature a collection of albums released in 2017 that I’m keeping, and the fourth will be for my “A list” playlist of records released this year.

A couple of rules for the albums: that I keep one means that I can play it from start and listen all the way through without skipping more than one song on it. The war against the single was a dark time in music history, but it was fighting for something worthwhile; producing a collection of high quality records at the same time is still a feat worth celebrating. So I do.

Second, these collections of mine don’t strictly adhere to genre. More than that, they reflect the mood I need to be in to play the albums in them. The way I identify album collections differs from year-to-year. Some years I make a single list of the “best” albums, but I’m kind of over that. “Best” is so slippery in music. I’ve spent too much time listening to music I didn’t really like because Rolling Stone of the AV Club said it was “the best.”

These three  collections simply reflect the moods I gravitated to this year.

One of them was a mood of pathos for the troubles of female country singers.

Caroline Spence, Spades And Roses (Self Released)

The first record I heard on this album was “All The Beds I’ve Made,” after reading a profile in American Songwriter (She also caught the attention of NPR). It’s what is great about country and Americana: literary writing full of detail carried by minimal instrumentation and a vocal strong enough to be compelling but rough enough to sing along to.

Last.fm says that I listened to the records “Southern Accident” and “Softball” the most.

 

Lee Ann Womack, The Lonely, The Lonesome, And The Gone (ATO Records)

This one snuck up on me late in the year, when American Songwriter sang its praises in late October. I was like, Lee Ann Womack? Like, “I Hope You Dance” Lee Ann Womack. Nope.

The only reason I even played it was the label–ATO published my favorite artists in the mid-00s, like Patty Griffin, My Morning Jacket, and Gomez, and that has earned some loyalty into the late teens of the century.

I’m glad I did.

The Lonely, The Lonesome, And The Gone is top-to-bottom characterized by restraint and precision, both lyrically and vocally. You can imagine hearing Womack and a small band play it in some dimly lit smoky bar. The title track is just so, so good.

 

Angaleena Presley, Wrangled (Mining Light)

Her 2015 debut album was a big deal, I hear. I never heard it. The follow up hooked me good, though.

Wrangled is the countriest of the country albums I spent time with in 2017. Presley’s Kentucky drawl drapes itself over all of these songs, some of which are covers of greats like Guy Clark. But the drawl is more than radio effect; there is palpable, infectious, angst coming through it in records like “Wrangled,” “Only Blood,” and “Bless My Heart,” which has one of the best lyrics of the whole year: “If you bless my heart I’ll slap your face.”

 

Dori Freeman, Letters Never Read (Self Released)

If Letters Never Read were longer I wouldn’t like it as much. It’s brevity is its genius. It ends almost before you realize its begun, and you think, “Wait. I liked that. All of it.”

Freeman is so unassuming that one of her song videos is simply strung together footage of her husband and daughter at a music festival. Jewly Hight’s review of this album got what’s great about Freeman exactly right, I think: “She values her lifelong exposure to living musical traditions, but doesn’t allow her reverence to overshadow her gift for distilling Appalachian melancholy into delicate pop ruminations.”

Next up: some rock records!

See you next Friday.