Best Tracks of 2017: # 5-1

5. Tori Amos, “Reindeer King”
I keep meaning to fully give Amos’ umpteenth LP Native Invader its due, but this seven-minute-long opener has everything I need from her in 2017. Epic yet intimate, typically inscrutable but also vividly drawn, it’s as beautiful and awestruck as anything she’s ever done. “Gotta get you back to you,” she repeatedly sings with urgency and reassurance, even as it feels like she is teetering on the precipice of the great unknown.

4. Lorde, “Perfect Places”
Having had a massive hit (“Royals”) at the tender age of 16, she aims for the fences on her return four years later. While Melodrama isn’t quite up there with, say, Never For Ever, tracks like this sublime closer suggest she might get there yet. “Perfect Places” emits universal appeal while sounding very much like it could only possibly come from the young woman singing it—a potential future standard, even if it missed the Hot 100 entirely.

3. Joe Goddard feat. SLO, “Music Is The Answer”
This solo recording from Hot Chip member Goddard is of a piece with any of that band’s great singles. Following a simple yet genius four-chord progression, like the best disco, it expertly builds momentum/anticipation until it reaches an almost euphoric high in the chorus. Vocalist Jess Mills (aka SLO) complements rather than overpowers the arrangement; together, they soar, carrying a promise of redemption and release on the dancefloor.

2. The War On Drugs, “Pain”
First of all, I adore that shimmering opening, all drumless and airy, those reverb-heavy guitars just falling into place. Then, the groove locks in and if anything, the song grows in power and reach. Adam Granduciel’s Bryan Adams-heavy croon has never fit in more comfortably than it does here. As the song keeps circling back to its yearning statement of purpose (“I resist what I cannot change”), it feels increasingly richer, layer upon melodic layer crystalizing into a breathtaking whole.

1. Iron & Wine, “Call It Dreaming”
I’ll never forget the first time I heard this song, walking home from the train station, listening to the new tracks I had downloaded from Spotify that week. Having had no expectations for a band I’ve casually admired and occasionally kinda liked over the past dozen years, I was almost knocked sideways by this rather straightforward tune. It gradually, expertly builds from lone acoustic guitar-and-vocal to a full-bodied arrangement in an organic way so that, once you get to the final thirty seconds, it resounds like few other songs I’ve heard. I liken its effect to that of a beating heart that keeps on expanding until it’s all you can hear, and it’s everything, and it’s enough.

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Best Tracks of 2017 # 10-6

10. Mavis Staples, “Try Harder”
On her third collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, she’s now making music as relevant as the protest gospel-soul she pioneered nearly 50 years ago with The Staples Singers. Built on an insistent, guttural guitar riff, it’s no exaggeration to say that “Try Harder” is right up there with “Respect Yourself”, especially when she sings, “Don’t do me no good to pretend,” again and again, laying bare the wisdom of acknowledging evil in order to combat it.

9. Lana Del Rey, “Love”
Despite having put out four albums in six years, Rey is still more of a singles artist—I can imagine her eventual hits comp will be all-time, with this arresting ballad as just one of its crown jewels. Taking aural inspiration from Phil Spector, crossed with her usual Angelo Badalamenti-isms (would it have been too on-the-nose for her to have appeared on Twin Peaks: The Return?), her declaration here “to be young, and in love” is deeply felt and understood.

8. Waxahatchee, “Never Been Wrong”
Right off the bat this has an agreeable Pixies/Breeders vibe that never quits; I also hear a little vintage Matthew Sweet and maybe some Jill Sobule, too. Fortunately, Katie Crutchfield transcends any hint of ’90s pastiche, as moving beyond her previously low-fi aesthetic for full bells-and-whistles production only further fortifies the strength of her words and melodies.

7. Stars, “We Called It Love”
This highlight from Fluorescent Light is almost Stars-by-numbers at first—another catchy mid-tempo gem to surely take its place on a killer compilation one day. However, after a few plays, all its little nuances begin to surface, and then crystalize to the point where the song, with its observation, “I don’t believe people ever change,” freshly resonates.

6. Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery of Love”
From the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack (which I have yet to see—it opens in Boston on the 22nd), musically this could’ve easily fit on Carrie and Lowell, but not tonally. After absorbing that album’s raw grieving and immense loss, it’s almost cathartic to hear Stevens sing a gentle, spiritual, and altogether happy love song again. It emits a rare sense of wonder that I always seek (but not often find) in the art I consume.

Best Tracks of 2017: # 15-11

15. Alvvays, “Plimsoll Punks”
It certainly never occurred to me on their 2015 hit “Archie, Marry Me” but this Canadian indie combo really could be the second coming of beloved ’90s band The Sundays (or perhaps a much gentler Belly.) I dare you to try and get the “Getting me down, getting me down, getting me down” chorus out of your head; same thing with that lead guitar arpeggio/riff, or how irresistibly Molly Rankin squeals the song’s title.

14. Erasure, “Still It’s Not Over”
Vince and Andy are still capable of at least one great song per album—from their uncommonly topical World Be Gone, it’s this gospel-infused lament. Both a celebration (“We made a miracle,” goes the bridge to the chorus) and an impassioned call for continued resistance against social injustice, it’s protest pop of the moment, firmly for the ages.

13. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Cut To The Feeling”
And to think she left this one off of 2015’s Emotion—from its “Lucky Star”-inspired intro to its infectious bounce and massive, bright-and-fizzy chorus, this holds its own with anything from that solid release. It exudes pure, unadulterated joy at a time when it’s most needed—as effective a balm as any protest pop.

12. Aimee Mann, “Patient Zero”
Mental Illness is still her best since Bachelor #2, but it just missed the cut for my album list—it’s a tad samey for my taste, even as it’s stuffed with neat little miniatures like this taut, tart single. Everything you’ve loved about this woman since her 1993 solo debut Whatever is present, from gorgeous, intricate harmonies to Mann’s sharp-as-a-tack wit.

11. Dan Croll, “Bad Boy”
Proof that one can still find great new music on the radio (in this case, WERS), this young Brit singer/songwriter comes off like Stuart Murdoch fronting Fountains of Wayne on this near-perfect piece of power-pop. The subject matter’s older than Fountain of Waynes’ own “Leave the Biker” from twenty-plus years ago, but it still scans all-too-well; Croll imbedding at least a half-dozen hooks throughout doesn’t hurt, either.

Best Tracks of 2017: # 20-16

20. The xx, “I Dare You”
For a band that worships at the altar of Everything But The Girl, I’ve always admired them from a distance since they overtly favor mood and texture over hooks. Third album I See You suggests maybe they’re not so afraid of hooks—their best is this song’s almost laughably simple, but simultaneously transcendent chorus; it also doesn’t hurt that it has a steady but not overwhelming pulse.

19. Jessie Ware, “Your Domino”
No longer the neo-Sade, she’s reached that perilous Adult Contemporary Tipping Point on her third LP, Glasshouse. Fortunately, she made room for this breezy banger. Breathlessly skipping through staccato electro-beats, it has a refreshingly cool melody that’s also thrilling and urgent. Ware pulls it all off with her usual effortless aplomb.

18. Perfume Genius, “Wreath”
In which Mike Hadreas discovers his inner Peter Gabriel and liberally quotes Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”. If that sounds like a bit much, well, “a bit much” is what Hadreas does so well. As powerful as his earlier songs “Queen” and “Fool” and far more accessible (while not at all diluted) to boot.

17. Sylvan Esso, “Die Young”
“I was gonna die young / now I gotta wait for you, hon,” is one of the year’s most enticing lyrical couplets, deflating the “live fast, etc.” sentiment of thousands of pop songs while also lending a new slant to it. Along with last year’s “Radio”, it helped put this deliberately mismatched synth pop duo on a much higher plane than previous.

16. Tennis, “My Emotions Are Blinding”
I’ve always meant to give this pleasant husband-and-wife duo more than a casual listen, but none of their songs have remotely stuck with me like this one: imagine if The Bird and The Bee were more of a guitar band, or if Carole King was still writing Tapestry-level hooks, or if Sheryl Crow wanted to recreate the sound and vibe of The Globe Sessions.

Best Tracks of 2017: # 25-21

This year, I’ll be counting down my 25 favorite tracks (this week) and 15 favorite albums (next week), with no overlap between the two, allowing for a little variety. I’ll always remember 2017 as the year I became a Spotify convert, thus having more access to new (and old) music than ever before.

I’ll also remember 2017 for the loss of two close friends: Bruce, whom I’ve written about here, and Howard, who passed away in August at age 50 after a long battle with cancer. Howard and I mostly knew each other through our blogs and, in particular, our annual year-end best album lists. All my posts on my favorite music of 2017 are dedicated to his memory.

25. Laura Marling, “Soothing”
Marling’s sixth album Semper Femina is the first since her 2008 debut to miss my albums list, mostly because it adds nothing new to her repertoire with the exception of its lead-off track and first single. “Soothing” sounds as if Portishead ditched the electronics for acoustic guitars, strings and real drums (and as if Beth Gibbons lightened up a little); next time, I wouldn’t mind if Marling made a whole album of this sort of thing.

24. Future Islands, “North Star”
On their much anticipated album The Far Field, this formerly weird synth-pop trio has boiled their fluke 2014 hit “Seasons (Waiting on You)” down to a formula—a successful one, mind you, but it’s still a formula. This up-tempo gem stands out mostly because, well, it’s an up-tempo gem with verses as catchy as its chorus, all vaguely reminiscent of “Heart of Glass”—fitting, since Debbie Harry herself duets with Samuel Herring four tracks later.

23. Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
A former UK number one that’s currently a surprise top 20 US hit, it has an even more indelible counting hook than Brian McKnight’s “Back At One” or Craig David’s “7 Days”. Still, it’s this Albanian-by-way-of-Britain dance diva who sells it, striking the exact right balance between swagger and a little subtlety.

22. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, “Sleeping Around the Corner”
Not bad for what’s essentially a Fleetwood Mac reunion minus Stevie Nicks, but what it really reminds me of is Buckingham’s recent ace solo work. Nothing revolutionary here: quiet verses, loud, anthemic chorus and Bucky’s inimitable wordless vocals at the end of the latter. Slot it into Tusk and no one would blink.

21. Grizzly Bear, “Mourning Sound”
What a deceptive title. One used to automatically expect a song by this band called “Mourning Sound” to be a dirge, but this is almost a better New Order pastiche than anything on Music Complete. As always, Grizzly Bear sculpt an enticing aural world to get lost in, but this time they include a much-appreciated road map.

Super Furry Animals, “Phantom Power”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #75 – released July 21, 2003)

Track listing: Hello Sunshine / Liberty Belle / Golden Retriever / Sex, War & Robots / The Piccolo Snare / Venus & Serena / Father Father #1 / Bleed Forever / Out of Control / Cityscape Skybaby / Father Father #2 / Valet Parking / The Undefeated / Slow Life 

Welsh quintet Super Furry Animals were automatically lumped in with Britpop on their 1996 debut Fuzzy Logic and it’s not difficult to see why given the era; one could almost too easily imagine Blur’s Damon Albarn singing over a few of album’s backing tracks. Still, even then, SFA was clearly its own kind of beast thanks to leader Gruff Rhys’ laid back (some would almost say lackadaisical) vocals and an eclecticism that far outpaced most of their contemporaries.

On subsequent records Radiator (1997) and Guerrilla (1999), SFA reveal themselves to be musical magpies as well-versed as Japan’s Pizzicato Five: the two bands sound absolutely nothing alike, but rarely in this project have we come across another outfit with an idea of pop music as far-reaching and inclusive, borrowing from and re-appropriating past touchstones so that they scan as both familiar and newfangled. Had SFA been a DJ collective rather than a guitar band, they might’ve turned out like The Avalanches. Instead, they expanded the notion of what Britpop could contain and then soon transcended it.

The five years following Fuzzy Logic encompass everything from an estimable stab at Tropicalia (“Northern Lites”) to the multi-part “Receptacle For The Respectable”, transforming itself from Beatles-esque sing-along to ear-shattering freakout in less than five minutes. This period also features catchy tunes with titles like “The International Language of Screaming” and “Shoot Doris Day”, epic one-off singles such as the awesome, anthemic “Ice Hockey Hair” and “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” (the latter built on Steely Dan (!) sample), and an entire album recorded in the band’s regional tongue (2000’s Mwng.)

SFA put out nine studio albums in a 13-year period; although the ninth was my favorite album of 2009 at the time, the one I return to most is their sixth, Phantom Power. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for it since it was my introduction to the band, but it holds up beautifully thanks to its rare cohesiveness. Whereas previous SFA long-players carry something like an electrical charge from their extreme sonic and thematic diversity, here the band simply sequences a collection of songs that sound like they belong together. What elevates Phantom Power from good to great is that rather than limit themselves for consistency’s sake, SFA still manage to pack in a relatively wide array of sounds and ideas in a deliberately tighter frame.

Opener “Hello Sunshine” wastes no time showing how the band gracefully achieves such balance. Its gently psychedelic intro of acoustic guitar with a female voice singing, “So hard to say goodbye…” could’ve come off the original Wicker Man soundtrack, conjuring atmosphere to spare. Then, suddenly, at 0:47, it shimmers into what turns out to be the song proper, an easy going, Beatles-simple hippie ballad full of rich, overdubbed harmonies with subtle electronic filigrees bubbling at its outer edges. From there, Phantom Power gradually revs itself up. “Liberty Belle” slightly quickens the tempo, conjoining an affable melody (complete with “Sympathy for The Devil” worthy “Who-hoo’s!”) with unexpectedly damning lyrics. “You know you’re diggin’ to hell!,” goes the deceptively cheerful chorus, introducing one of the album’s most prevalent running themes, a skepticism of post-9/11, War on Terror-era America that feels far more potent than Blur’s from a decade before.

After concise bluesy gallop/obvious single “Golden Retriever” is out of the way, the album’s first major stylistic swerve comes with “Sex, War & Robots” (with that title, how could it not?) Its abundance of pedal steel and sumptuous strings sounds almost exactly like k.d. lang circa Ingenue, but Rhys’ vocals, recorded through a trippy filter are another thing entirely; also, eclectic as she could be, it’s hard to picture lang ever singing a lyric like “I programmed robots to make them lie.” The shift in tone is build-up for the album’s first epic/highlight, “The Piccolo Snare”. Resembling the psych-pop opening of “Hello Sunshine” but with a far lusher palette, it piles on irresistible, explicitly retro harmonies in mold of The Mamas and The Papas and The Association (in a way, anticipating Fleet Foxes by roughly five years); chiming, echoing synths, backwards guitars and a most effective key change at the bridge all contribute to the throbbing wall of melody and sound, nimbly sustaining this specific momentum for over six minutes.

Venus & Serena” brings it all back down to Earth via a glam-pop ode to the titular tennis pro twins, winning points on both a hummable ascendant chorus and by inserting a girl-group breakdown (“Father, father, father, father, can’t you see / I’m a walking tragedy”) smack dab in the middle. Immediately following, “Father Father #1” is a two-minute orchestral interlude, a quietly majestic palette cleanser bringing Phantom Power’s first half to a comforting close.

As “Hello Sunshine” began the album with a hint of the Beatles, “Bleed Forever” does pretty much the same for the second half. Its drum intro could’ve been lifted off of Abbey Road or Let It Be, but SFA include enough crafty details to avoid pastiche, as heard in the maracas and Moog synthesizer lurking in the background (and also in the Barry Gibb-like slant Rhys lends the word “Fa-ev-ahhhh”.) Referencing “holy wars” and “ninja jihads,” “Out of Control” instantly snaps into “Liberty Belle” mode but with more intensity—a tightly wound maelstrom of one-note banging piano, “Jumping Jack Flash” guitar riffs, wailing backing vocals and Motown/Tamla beats.

Cityscape Skybaby” initially provides a much-needed breather from all that action, its first minute weightless and fluttering like prime Pink Floyd. Then, the vocals come in, the melody gradually surges into focus and the full band arrives at the two-minute mark achieving post-apocalyptic trance-rock bliss; the overlapping vocal parts near the end are as heavenly as anything in “The Piccolo Snare”. “Father Father #2” provides another brief orchestral interlude similar to what we heard four tracks previously, although now the strings seem slightly off-kilter, only turning reassuring at the end.

A car’s ignition signals the start of “Valet Parking”; it’s another attempt at Tropicalia, only this time with Latin guitars, slinky beats and incessant “ba, ba, ba’s” instead of any horns (although as it proceeds, snippets of car horns subtly dart into and out of the mix.) The whole thing seems to glide along with breezy joie de vivre as Rhys sings, “Fly away / in my silver Bluebird”—that is, until he almost casually mentions how “It’s Solvent Abuse Awareness Week / at the clinic in a Berlin backyard.” “The Undefeated” further juxtaposes a sunny disposition with decidedly darker content. A driving beat and snatches of steel drums seem pleasant enough, but if you really listen to the lyrics—the main hooks are, “Yes, so shallow, the Undefeated” and cries of “Lies! Pollution! Solution!”—it should come as little of a shock when the song ends in an abrupt hail of gunfire.

Just as the gunshots peter out, however, Phantom Power’s finale begins. Many fans regard “Slow Life” as SFA’s magnum opus (as epic pop songs go, it’s up there with Saint Etienne’s “Avenue” and XTC’s “Jason and the Argonauts”.) The first forty seconds play out in a swirl of carefully, strikingly placed synth and orchestral samples, instantly drawing the listener in. A peppy drum machine lays the foundation for everything to spin towards a blistering crescendo; then, electrobeats introduce a melody that the song’s remainder sustains. Strings come in, as does an electric-guitar-and-harmonica breakdown so that when Rhys’ vocals finally appear at 2:19, one can easily sing along with the lyric sheet. Momentum keeps building until, with the familiar four-note signal of a clock chime, we arrive at the chorus which is simply the phrase “Rocks are slow life” repeated over and over into a “Hey Jude”-like coda. Who knows/cares if there’s any meaning beneath the surface, for “Slow Life” endures for seven minutes without a hint of strain, finally signing off with suspended strings that suddenly, almost breathlessly fade into the ether.

After three more albums, SFA went on an indefinite hiatus. Rhys and other members recorded solo records (his 2014 release American Interior is solid) and left dangling the possibility of a tenth album; as of late 2017, it still hasn’t arrived, although the band has toured extensively over the past three years and even included a new song on 2016’s career-spanning anthology Zoom! I doubt they’ll ever go beyond their long-running cult status (particularly outside the UK); still, like Pizzicato Five, they remain ripe for discovery, and their songs are in English (except when they’re occasionally in Welsh)—more significantly, unlike P5, their back catalog is still in print.

Up next: Their Winnipeg.

(Also of note: this project, now 3/4 completed (!) will return in early 2018.)

“Slow Life”:

“The Piccolo Snare”:

WVTV Commercial Compilation From 1979!

So much to say about this montage of local and national advertising that ran on then-independent Milwaukee TV station WVTV (despite what the heading says, it was never an ABC affiliate, although it’s presently the CW) on May 5, 1979. I was too young (age 4) to remember seeing this firsthand, although a couple of these lingered long into the ’80s.

0:56 – TACOTACOTACO BELL! (also, “The Fresh Food Place”, eh?)

1:06 – It’s like every single key pressed on this primitive calculator emits a stab of agonizing pain.

2:27 – Whoa, lady! Bar soap scintillating enough to induce cartwheels.

2:47 – TAKEALOOKAT THOSE GINORMOUS CANS. Sorry, but Jolly Good just wasn’t as great a local generic soda as Graf’s.

3:43 – It’s not so much the claymation Jimmy Durante (who wasn’t even dead yet – did he approve this abomination?) but the demented grin Larry Balistreri makes as he picks up the little figurine that translates into Nightmare Fuel.

5:29 – First Wisconsin Bank presents: A Cornucopia of Authentic Wisconsin (sorry, “Wes-cahn-sin”) Accents!

7:38 – I swear True Value commercials looked and sounded exactly like this well into the ’90s.

8:55 – “Laz-o-curve Thrusters” (Thank you, Star Wars.)

9:38 – Woolworths (celebrating its centennial) and Mickey Mantle! Both will be dead in less than 20 years!

10:49 – Nice to know Don Ameche (he’s from Kenosha, don’t ya know) would go on to win an Oscar for Cocoon years after appearing in these sorts of ads.

13:12 – The Ernie von Schledorn jingle! I’ve been scouring YouTube for this for years. Loses points for not including Ernie’s spoken coda, “Who do you know vants to buy a car?”

16:31 – It’s Bon Iver’s dad! (“Ah… milk!”)

18:02 (and 21:08) – I’m old enough to faintly remember when Marc’s Big Boys looked like this (heck, I’m old enough to remember Marc’s Big Boy.) Also, there’s something positively Christopher Guest-like about these interviews.

19:03 – Let’s go back when commercials could reasonably look like they cost twenty bucks to produce (“Brother John’s, next to Gene’s…”)

20:38 – Mel Frickin’ Schlesinger (and his annoying little bird)! In my mind, I auto-associated the word “Schlesinger” with cars well into my twenties.

Really, the only thing missing from this stupendous collection is an ad for Gordon (Gordon, Gordon) Furniture, and maybe one for Tadych (skip to 2:01) too.