2017 was a rather active year in music, but when it came to new releases, I opted to leave a lot of stuff on the shelf. A decade ago, new albums by Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear would have been breathlessly awaited. I don’t get the sense either had much staying power beyond their release dates.
As a result, I ended up purchasing a total of 34 new titles, approximately 7 percent of my total buying activity. The remaining purchases? Catalog and reissues. This list, in other words, comes from a small pool of albums.
- Onitsuka Chihiro, Syndrome
- Royal Wood, Ghost Light
- RADWIMPS, Your name.
- Sam Smith, The Thrill of It All
- Sam Amidon, The Following Mountain
- Kronos Quartet, Folk Songs
- Gaytheist, Let’s Jam Again Soon
- Living Colour, Shade
- Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
- Renée Fleming, Distant Light
Sam Smith and Living Colour are the big changes from the mid-year list. The Thrill of It All isn’t as weird as I hoped it could be, but it’s a more appealing album than Smith’s debut.
Shade is the perfect soundtrack for the frustration of living under the current administration. Pre-release press mention the blues as a springboard for the album, but really, Living Colour transform the blues in ways that are nigh unrecognizable.
Other favorites from the year:
- Eluvium, Shuffle Drone: I hate both the repeat and shuffle buttons on my playback mechanisms. That said, Matthew Cooper deserves mad props for creating an album that puts both buttons to excellent use.
- Sampha, Process: I admit I didn’t listen to this album till a few weeks ago, once it started showing up on year-end favorite lists.
- David Rawlings, Poor David’s Almanack: My long-simmering discovery of Gillian Welch will have to wait for another entry, but it’s the reason David Rawlings shows up here.
- Shiina Ringo, Gyakuyunyuu ~Kuukoukyoku~: Part of me misses the rocking Ringo-chan of the early 2000s, but then hearing these songs side-by-side with the artists who recorded them first deepens my appreciation for her.
- Sufjan Stevens / Nico Muhly / Bryce Dessner / James McAlister, Planetarium: It helps to have heard this album with a laser light show.
- The Drums, Abysmal Thoughts: Jonny Pierce takes over the show.
- Cocco, Cocco 20 Shuunen Kinen Special Live at Nippon Budokan ~Ichi no Kan x Ni no Kan~: The live performances don’t stray too far from what’s heard in the studio, but Cocco’s voice doesn’t seem to have aged a bit.
- Duran Duran, Thanksgiving Live at Pleasure Island: If you’re a fan of the seriously-underrated Medazzaland, this live album is a must-have.
Tags: bryce dessner, cocco, david rawlings, duran duran, favorite edition, gaytheist, james mcalister, jason isbell, kronos quartet, living colour, nico muhly, onitsuka chihiro, radwimps, renee fleming, royal wood, sam amidon, sam smith, sampha, shiina ringo, sufjan stevens
I usually publish this entry at the start of July. Unfortunately, all the releases in which I’m most interested came out in June, and I didn’t want to make hasty judgements. So I held off till I had a few weeks to live with these latecomers.
Labels, why did you all wait till the middle of the year? Couldn’t you have spread some of this joy over the previous 6 months?
- Onitsuka Chihiro, Syndrome: This album really recaptures the sound and mood of her debut album.
- Royal Wood, Ghost Light: This album was released in 2016 but limited to Canada. So I’m calling it a 2017 album because of its worldwide release in January. The Burning Bright is so far Wood’s best album, but Ghost Light isn’t a slump for a follow-up.
- Renée Fleming, Distant Light: I’m not sure Fleming’s sound suits Samuel Barber’s Knoxville 1915, but the orchestral arrangements of Björk songs works really well.
- RADWIMPS, Kimi no Na wa: I’m pretty much throwing this soundtrack on the list because the movie was amazing, and it’s impossible to hear “Katawaredoki” without tearing up. (You just have to watch the movie to understand.) The English version of the songs came out really well.
- Sam Amidon, The Following Mountain: Amidon does some strange things with traditional material, but this time around he writes his own songs and lets his jazz side out a bit more.
- Kronos Quartet, Folk Songs: Kronos takes a back seat to the singers — who include Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens and Natalie Merchant — but these arrangements of mostly traditional songs are far from genteel.
- Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound: Isbell is the kind of songwriter whose music continues to play in your head after it’s finished on the player.
- Gaytheist, Let’s Jam Again Soon: Oh, it’s loud!
- Sufjan Stevens / Nico Muhly / Bryce Dessner / James McAlister, Planetarium: I don’t know if this album needs to be 75 minutes long, but it’s a fascinating listen nonetheless.
Tags: bryce dessner, favorite edition, gaytheist, james mcalister, jason isbell, nico muhly, onitsuka chihiro, radwimps, renee fleming, royal wood, sufjan stevens
As it often happens when compiling the year-end favorite list, a few discoveries don’t reveal themselves till after deadline. At this point, none of these albums pose a threat to anything on the 2015 list, but that may change.
Software Giant, We Are Overcome
I thought Chicago singer-songwriter Dylan Rice had fallen off a corner of the earth. He released his second solo album in 2010, then seemingly disappeared. As it turned out, he joined a band in 2013, which then went on to unleash its debut album We Are Overcome in 2015.
Billing itself as “Less Claypool sitting in with Kraftwerk”, Software Giant reminds me more of the grunge jazz of Wayne Horvitz’s early ’90s outfit Pigpen. The music is a bit too human for its mechanistic aspirations — Morrissey singing with New Order is another description — but we can forgive the band for having a live drummer instead of a machine. Rice has the kind of gorgeous croon that makes me wish he were more prolific.
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
PBR&B is a pretty awful term, but it’s succinct in describing the kind of R&B music that appeal to rockist snobs such as myself.
Various recommendations led me to the Weeknd. Beauty Behind the Madness has slowly seeped into my consciousness. I find myself humming portions of the album during those rare moments when no music is playing on my devices.
The collaborative approach to this split album works incredibly well. Rather than devote one side to each band, Gaytheist and Rabbits exchange songs and band members throughout. It ends up sounding like the work of one unit, a true case of the sum being greater than the parts.
Andrew Norman, Play, Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Ask yourself what an orchestra would sound like performing Naked City’s Torture Garden.
Tags: andrew norman, favorite edition, gaytheist, rabbits, software giant, the weeknd