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.
I’m not the kind of person who has to post selfies or photograph everything I’m eating or doing.
That would be Janet Jackson pictured with this entry.
JACK Quartet, Meany Hall, Jan. 10
I ran into my music theory TA at this concert, and we both we a bit meh about the program. JACK is a great quartet, but I honestly can’t remember much beyond the Morton Feldman piece which opened the concert.
The [untitled] series introduces me to a lot of new music of which I never follow up after hearing it. I still love going to these concerts, though.
University of Washington Modern Music Ensemble, John Zorn: Cobra, Meany Hall, March 1
I’ve known about Cobra for years, but this performance was the first I’ve attended. Recordings can’t do this piece justice. It must be experienced live to understand it.
Seattle Symphony, Aaron Jay Kernis: Violin Concerto, Benaroya Hall, March 18
Violinist James Ihnes has a lot of creative capital in Seattle as director of the seasonal chamber music festival, so I think the audience was willing to give Kernis’ concerto a chance. The piece and the performance went over well.
Japan Nite Tour, Chop Suey, March 22
Damn, had it been five years since I’ve attended a Japan Nite concert?
Emerson String Quartet, Meany Hall, April 21
There’s no way I would miss an Emerson concert with Shostakovich or Bartok on the program.
Seattle Symphony, [untitled 3], Benaroya Hall, April 28
A program centered around Andy Warhol concluded with a “popera”, which actually was far more engaging that I expected.
University of Washington Harry Partch Ensemble, Oedipus: A Music Theater Drama, Meany Hall, May 6
UW has a number of Harry Partch’s custom instruments, which were put to use in a production of Oedipus. Without the visual element, they pretty much sound like gamelan.
Midnight Oil, Moore Theatre, May 31
Yeah, definitely my favorite show of the year. The set list covered the entire span of their career, and just about everything I wanted to hear live I did.
Low + MONO, Neptune Theatre, June 16
I’ve known about Low for a long time — mostly through the band’s cover of “Africa” by Toto — but I was never curious enough to seek them out. I was duly impressed, even if I don’t think I’ll own anything other than Things We Lost in the Fire. MONO, of course, brought it.
The Revolution, Showbox, July 15
The band crafted the set list incredibly well. It started off with some obscure but recognizable stuff, but the second half kicked off the favorites. And everyone left pleased.
Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, Paramount Theatre, Sept. 12
Jason Isbell delivered a flawless performance as usual. The audience, though, was weird. It was a Tuesday night, and the Seattle Freeze was in full force, with half the audience sitting and the other half standing.
Sam Amidon, Fremont Abbey, Sept. 22
If nothing else, you really must go to a Sam Amidon show just to hear him talk between songs.
Janet Jackson, Key Arena, Sept. 27
I held onto my ticket after two cancellations, and I was glad I did. No opening act. Just Janet dishing out hit after hit in an epic DJ mix, only live.
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.
It seems all the bands in which I’m interested all decided to release their albums in May and June. To date, I have a total of four 2017 releases since the start of the year. Putting together the Favorite Edition Half Year is going to be tricky.
At the Drive-In, in*ter al*li*a, May 5
I can’t figure out why I’m looking forward this late-coming follow-up to Relationship of Command, an album I like but can’t listen to very often. And I wasn’t enough of a fan to follow either Mars Volta or Sparta.
Café Tacvba, Jei Beibi, May 5
I find it interesting that Café Tacvba is releasing this album through CD Baby. That means they’ve gone completely independent.
Midnight Oil, Full Tank, May 7
Midnight Oil, Overflow Tank, May 7
Tempting as these complete boxed sets may be, my current Midnight Oil collection occupies quite a bit of shelf space. Also, the import markup makes these sets fiscally untenable. Hey Sony, fans outside of Australia might be interested in some of these releases.
Juanes, Mis Planes Son Amarte, May 12
It’s a visual album about a man going into outer space to find the woman of his dreams. I would be interested to see how Café Tacvba would tackle the same plot.
PWR BTTM, Pageant, May 12
Anyone who has Grindr or Scruff installed on his phone would probably check out a band called PWR BTTM.
Art of Noise, In Visible Silence (Deluxe Edition), May 19
The weirdest album I acquired in 1986. The b-sides are terrific.
Kishida Shigeru, Symphony No. 1, May 24
If the orchestral work Kishida released last year as a digital single is any indication, don’t expect a musical metamorphosis on the level of C. Kip Winger.
Sam Amidon, The Following Mountain, May 26
His first album of original music.
Cody Chesnutt, My Love Divine Degree, June 2
It’s been a while. I had wondered if another 10 years would pass before another Cody Chesnutt album would arrive.
U2, The Joshua Tree (30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition), June 2
I already have the 20th Anniversary edition, so really, I just want the white cover with the color photo.
Kronos Quartet, Folk Songs, June 9
For a while there, I thought Kronos had moved on from Nonesuch, given the number of albums the ensemble has released on other labels. This collaborative album with Sam Amidon, Natalie Merchant, Rhiannon Giddens and Olivia Chaney is the first Kronos has released on Nonesuch since 2012, not counting various anthologies.
Dan Messe, Amelie: A New Musical, June 9
I’m not sure what draws me to this cast recording — the fact it’s based on Amelie or the fact it was written by a member of Hem.
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister, Planetarium, June 9
Well, somebody had to update Gustav Mahler’s The Planets …
The Drums, Abysmal Thoughts, June 16
Jonny Pierce goes full Roland Orzabal ca. 1993, becoming the sole member of his band The Drums.
Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound, June 16
I would be OK with Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson releasing albums on alternating years.
Midnight Oil, The Vinyl Collection, May 7
I would like to get Redneck Wonderland, Breathe and Head Injuries on vinyl. I could do without Capricornia, Earth and Sun and Moon and Place Without a Postcard. Maybe separate releases down the line? Outside Australia, even??
Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers, At the Ryman, May 12
Harris’ shows at the Ryman gave the venue new life, and she returns for the venue’s 125th anniversary. So of course a reissue (on vinyl!) is in order.
En Vogue, Funky Divas, June 9
I’m disappointed rock bands haven’t turned “Free Your Mind” into a crossover classic.
Enya, A Day Without Rain, June 16
Enya, Amaratine, July 14
A Day Without Rain is Enya’s weakest album, and Amaratine went a long way to rectify it. That won’t stop me from getting both of them.
This month, I turn 45 years old. The music that influenced me as a teen-ager is being reissued in 30th anniversary deluxe editions. The turn of the 20th century is roughly four years away from being 20 years behind us. I’m five years away from 50.
In 2016, I wrote about the various twists and turns my listening habits took over the course of four decades. Now, I’m pinpointing specific albums that mark each decade for me, starting with the current one.
The pop culture identity of a decade doesn’t really establish itself till two years into it, and my age puts me at such a distance from that zeitgeist that I have no clue what this decade means. Or perhaps the culture has moved on from rallying around music, streaming services allowing us to explore everything conforming to our highly-optimized filter bubbles.
I wonder if this list will even grow much beyond this year.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
I see A Sailor’s Guide to Earth as something of a cap to the Obama era of progress. Even after signing to a major label, the fiercely independent Simpson crafted a thoroughly-composed work. It can’t be sliced up into singles, or the architecture of the album would crumble. Would this kind album flourished under the current leadership in Washington, D.C.? I doubt it.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
So far, 2015 has been the creative pinnacle of this decade. Sleater-Kinney ushered it in with an album that barely acknowledged the decade-long gap from its predecessor, and Jason Isbell, Kendrick Lamar and Lin-Manuel Miranda followed in their wake. Madonna, Janet Jackson and Enya even showed up with some of their best work in years.
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean
I haven’t mentioned that I’ve been taking music theory courses at the University of Washington, where I work. Seattle Symphony reconnected me with classical music, and the orchestra’s advocacy of new music inspired me to fill in the gaps of my undergraduate classical training.
Jarell Perry, Simple Things
I didn’t know PBR&B was a thing till I tried to figure out just what Jarell Perry, Solange, Shaprece and the Weeknd were doing with R&B. Hip-hop has its underground tract, and evidently, so does R&B. Of course, PBR&B is a terrible term.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
You’re not supposed to judge media by their cover art, but it’s hard not to sense something pretty intense in Isbell’s gaze on the cover of Southeastern. I don’t know if I would have listened to this album otherwise.
Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS
Kuriyama Chiaki could have gotten someone like Perfume producer Nakata Yasutaka to fashion a hit-making album, but she tossed her hat into a ring that included Shiina Ringo and Asai Kenichi. I discovered she played Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 only after I listened to the album.
We’re half way into the second decade of the 2000s, and I haven’t seen much punditry on what albums have been emblematic of the decade. It’s probably because listening habits have moved on from albums even if the release cycle hasn’t.
My friend will be disappointed to learn I consider 2010 the start of the decade, so I’ll restrict my list to its first five years with 2010 included (i.e. 2010-2014.)
Jason Isbell, Southeastern: “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” and “Elephant” pretty much sold me on this album, and everything else was just seduction.
Tokyo Jihen, Sports: Shiina Ringo loosened her writing monopoly with the band, which then internalized her style to produce its best album.
Jarell Perry, Simple Things: Part of me thinks this album is actually better than Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE.
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean: Does what it says on the tin very, very beautifully
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE: WHERE YOU AT FRANK??
D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah: So many of my friends lost their shit when this album was released that I had to hear it for myself.
Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe: I love her music, but damn, her videos are disturbing.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds of Country Music: What happens to country music when it ingests hallucinogens.
Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now: Thank you, Mark Ronson, for bringing Duran Duran back to itself.
Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS: Getting Shiina Ringo to write a few tracks is a sure way for Japanese actresses to grab my attention.
I didn’t think a comeback this year could top the return of Sleater-Kinney, but I was mistaken. I didn’t realize how much I had missed Janet Jackson till she returned, and Enya quenched a drought of a similar length (7 years.) Even Madonna turned in work that’s some of her best in a while. I also learned the awful term “PBR&B”, which describes the kind of R&B music to which I seem to be drawn.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical: The last time the score of a musical had me riveted to my stereo was The Phantom of the Opera. Not only is the story of Hamilton thrilling to follow, but the hip-hop score is jaw-dropping. Policy debates as rap battles? Maybe that should happen in real life.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: Just about every year-end list will include this album near the top. And I don’t even listen that much hip-hop.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free: It’s always great to see an artist with a breakthrough album follow up with something just as strong.
Björk, Vulnicura: So now the question is which do you prefer: Vulnicura or Vulnicura Strings?
Deebs and Jarell Perry, Shift: I like how Jarell Perry keeps pushes the borders of what R&B can do. He’s got great company with Shaprece, Santigold, Miguel and Frank Ocean, WHEREVER THE HELL HE IS.
Steve Grand, All-American Boy: I still don’t understand why people call him a country artist. He sounds nothing like Sturgill Simpson.
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable: Janet returns with her most sonically diverse album since The Velvet Rope.
Miguel, Wildheart: He bragged about being better than Frank Ocean, and I hate to say it, but I think there’s something behind that bravado.
Honorable mention goes to …
Madonna, Rebel Heart
Duran Duran, Paper Gods: Duran Duran tends to misstep after hitting a home run, but that’s not the case here.
Enya, Dark Sky Island: You know what you’re getting with Enya. On a few tracks, she does seem to be dipping a tentative toe into more pop styles, by which I mean less Bach.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Barnett crams a lot of imagery in her songs, but they make for great stories.
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, Wonder Future: When ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION take time with their albums, it really pays off.
Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: No, this isn’t an international crossover album. If anything, it’s some of the most challenging music the quartet has recorded in a while.
Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot, Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 / Varese: Ameriques: This album is something of a souvenir for me because I attended this concert, but the live recording of Ameriques would be reason enough to pick it up.
Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty: I didn’t think this album would be very distinct from MONO, but it’s quite a change for Taka and still recognizably him.
Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear: This album will also appear on a lot of year-end lists, but it didn’t grab me as much as everything else on the list.
Concert reviews were always something I wanted to write for this site, but I never drummed up the gumption to jot down my thoughts about shows after I attend them. In reality, I didn’t want shows to become means to an end, in the same way album purchases had become source for reviews.
Still, I go to a lot of concerts, and it feels awkward not mentioning them at least once.
So I’m going to do a year-end overview of all the shows I’ve attended in the past year.
It happens even now — an attractive guy on the cover of an album gets me to buy it. I do like those times when the music accompanying the pretty face turns me into a fan. Here are a few.
Jason Isbell isn’t my usual type — that would be Law and Order: SVU‘s Mike Doyle or, uh, Edward Snowden — but I did a double take when I first saw the cover of Southeastern. First, it’s a striking photo. Second, Isbell is a handsome guy. He’s not Channing Tatum-photogenic, but that welcoming, earnest expression can’t help but draw attention.
What clinches the crush, though, is his Twitter feed. He’s a card and an excellent writer. He uses the 140 character cap to his advantage, imbuing the pretty face with a likable personality. All that on top of being a damn fine songwriter.
I’ll admit I’ve downloaded pictures of Tim McGraw stripped to the waist, but I draw the line at listening to his music. When Ty Herndon came out of the closet, I thought I would make the same distinction.
In reality, Herndon has a voice worth playing repeatedly, and his hit singles don’t induce the kind of cringe brought on by, say, Brad Paisley. (I’ve been subjected to Paisley. It was unpleasant.)
If Herndon booked a gig somewhere in Western Washington, I would go see him.
Oh, I’m pretty sure my messages to Steve Grand on Grindr would totally get ignored, were this unlikely scenario ever played out in real life. But my rock snobbery is no match to the charm he exudes.
Royal Wood showed up as a suggestion I might like on a recommendation engine, and I’m sure the context for this suggestion was music. My eyes thought differently.
The Advocate mentioned Sacha Sacket briefly in its 2005 music issue, and I dug his sound. It’s one of the few instances where the music grabbed me, and the nearly naked photos are just a bonus.
Shut up. I blame Rolling Stone. He did a photo spread for them without a shirt. What’s Left of Me is a musically ridiculous album, but I couldn’t help myself.