Best Albums of 2017: # 3, 2, 1

3. St. Vincent, “MASSeduction”
“One of our great female eccentrics,” I wrote about Annie Clark on her last album—a handle she still maintains, even if it now feels like a reduction. She promised a game-changer of a fifth album, and she makes good on that claim, though not in the way I expected, which is of course exactly why she clinches it. More accessible and outgoing, yes, but also just as arch and in control, MASSeduction (only she could get away with that title) features a seven-song sequence (from “Pills” to “New York”) as breathless as anything I’ve heard, a Prince pastiche that nearly outdoes him (the title track), an euphoric rush of a sexual conquest where she nearly outdoes herself (“Sugarboy”) and a bold closer (“Smoking Section”) that suggests she’s far from done pushing her own artistic boundaries.

“MASSeduction”:

2. Nicole Atkins, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee”
Previously, Atkins struck me as an incredible, tremulous singer in search of a voice, capable of an occasional great song (“Maybe Tonight”, “Girl You Look Amazing”) but nothing more. Oh, how her fourth album proves me wrong—deliberately, unfashionably out-of-time, it successfully repositions her as a genre-inclusive torch songstress as likely to co-write retro-rock laments with Chris Isaak (“A Little Crazy”, the title track) as she is to evoke the likes of Dusty In Memphis (“Darkness Falls So Quiet”) and Make Way For Dionne Warwick (“If I Could”). What’s more, Goodnight Rhonda Lee smoothly sprints from high to high, its eleven songs all of a piece. Still, I would be remiss not to single out “I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t)”, a smart, ultimately devastating expression of how miserable and simultaneously content one can feel.

“I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t):

1. Saint Etienne, “Home Counties”
At 19 tracks in just under an hour, it’s their longest long player; also their most musically diverse since Finisterre (if not So Tough.) Citing Brexit as a jumping-off point, Bob, Pete and Sarah present a concept album about the London suburbs they grew up in and continue to have a love/hate relationship with. Even more deeply felt than the pop-timism of 2012’s Words and Music, this one instantly locates that sweet spot the band’s always depended on, finding great inspiration in the mundane. Proceeding from typically immaculate three-minute singles (“Magpie Eyes”, “Out of My Mind”) and AM radio gold (“Underneath the Apple Tree”, “Take It All In”) to moodier stuff like instrumental “Breakneck Hill” and the beguiling, ominous “Heather”, all its disparate parts eventually form a gestalt, culminating in “Sweet Arcadia”: another in a series of Saint Etienne epics going back to “Avenue”, it evokes this world in exquisite detail via time, memory and such talismans as its gorgeous, watery electric piano straight out of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”. Home Counties is easily my record of the year, and one of this venerable trio’s very best.

“Magpie Eyes”:

“Sweet Arcadia”:

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Best Albums of 2017: # 6, 5, 4

6. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Rest”
Under the impression that Gainsbourg had all but given up her putative music career to become Lars von Trier’s muse, I wasn’t expecting a new album from her in 2017; nor did I imagine she’d release anything like the lead-off single “Deadly Valentine”, a perfectly formed, sleazy disco epic to which my immediate response was, “More of this, please.” Well, readers, rest assured Rest delivers, and in spades: from “Lying To You” to “I’m A Lie”, it’s less a stunning return-to-form than a total about-face. Writing her own songs for the first time and no longer giving a damn as to whether or not she resembles her titanic father, Gainsbourg readily shows she is every bit the musician as she is an actress.

“Deadly Valentine”:

5. Alison Moyet, “Other”
A sequel to her own 2013 return-to-form The Minutes, but also more musically diverse and a little riskier. A fearlessness pervades throughout—there’s a spoken word piece (“April 10th”), a curt kiss-off (“Lover, Go”), stripped-down piano balladry (the title track) and even a few naggingly catchy Yaz similes (“Reassuring Pinches”, “Giddy Happy”). Yet, despite having made peace with her electro-pop past, Moyet’s mindset is fervently of the moment. In an essay earlier this year, I noted in concert she still sounds remarkably comfortable in her own skin, but not at all complacent. Other as a whole wrings just the right amount tension from this harder-to-pull-off-than-it-looks contrast. Also, she hasn’t written such an impassioned anthem as “The Rarest Birds” in many years.

“The Rarest Birds”:

 

4. Jens Lekman, “Life Will See You Now”
As much as I wish Lekman wouldn’t take five years between albums, if it’s necessary for his through-the-roof quality control, then so be it. He’s lightened up a little in the last interim, whether he’s borrowing musical cues from “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (on “To Know Your Mission”) or sampling Jackie Stoudemire on “How Me Met, the Long Version”. Still, he remains most effective as a fountain of empathy—he duets with kindred spirit Tracey Thorn (“Hotwire The Ferris Wheel”) and keenly struggles with how to express platonic love for a male friend (“How Can I Tell Him”). On the superlative “Evening Prayer”, about another friend who has just had a tumor removed, he sings, “It’s been a long hard year,” and I never fail to melt at its resonance in these challenging times.

“Evening Prayer”:

Best Albums of 2017: # 9, 8, 7

9. Ted Leo, “The Hanged Man”
Leo kept us sane during the George W. Bush years, so it’s fitting that he chooses to make a full-throttle return now. Not counting The Both, this is his first album since 2010, and also the first credited solely to him without The Pharmacists, which is key. While always personable, his lyrics have rarely been so personal. He opens up about being abused as a child and his wife’s miscarriage, but he doesn’t let exorcising his demons get in the way of the defiant exuberance one always expects from him. Plus, there are enough new wrinkles here, like the overlapping vocals at the close of “Used To Believe” or the wisdom and warmth of “William Weld In the 21st Century” to suggest that this album is not a retread, but a way forward.

“Used To Believe”:

8. Emm Gryner, “Only Of Earth”
Gryner’s career longevity comes from both remaining fiercely independent and maintaining an inclusiveness that only someone with her caliber of talent can pull off. Her latest contains everything from piano balladry (“Comets Call”, alternate-world AOR standard “A Mission”) and Wendy and Lisa style psych-pop (the utterly charming “Imagination”) to Hammond organ-drenched, tempo-shifting prog (“The Passing of Ayro”) and late ’80s vintage synth-pop (“Blood Balloons”). She attempts to tie it all together as a sort of autobiographical concept album, with echoing melodies and lyrical callbacks strategically placed throughout. Although I still prefer 2011’s absolutely perfect Northern Gospel, this ambitious collection is her best since and another solid effort in an oeuvre full of ‘em. (No YouTube clips yet; to find out more, go to her PledgeMusic page.)

7. The Magnetic Fields, “50 Song Memoir”
Not in the same league as 69 Love Songs—with Stephin Merritt (understandably) singing on every last track, the earlier set’s four supplementary vocalists are much missed. Still, as autobiographical albums go, this one’s essential. Never say that Merritt doesn’t commit to a concept, and returning to one not solely defined by an aural aesthetic gives him an ideal platform for his encyclopedic pop knowledge. The set’s saving grace, however, is the ten-songs-per-disc format, which renders it all digestible, and the highlights, ranging from odes to “Judy Garland” and disco on the radio (“Hustle ‘76”) to clever ditties about roommates (“Me and Fred and Dave and Ted”) and favorite watering holes (“Be True To Your Bar’) are delicious indeed.

“Me and Fred and Dave and Ted”:

Best Albums of 2017: # 12, 11, 10

12. Spoon, “Hot Thoughts”
Curious how I really like exactly every other album this most consistent indie-rock combo has put out since Girls Can Tell—the rest aren’t shabby either, but, as with Gimme Fiction and Transference, this one’s just a little more solid than its predecessor. Chalk it up to leader Britt Daniels (Christgau once said of him, “Boy – what a tight-ass”) to exhibiting some newfound looseness and warmth while his songwriting instincts remain ever so snug. Not for nothing was the INXS-like title track their biggest radio hit ever, but it don’t let it overshadow the likes of the ultra-melodic, piano-pounding “Tear It Down”, hypnotic groove piece “Pink Up” or airy, sax-drenched (maybe they really do want to be INXS?) instrumental closer “Us”.

“Tear It Down”:

11. The Dream Syndicate, “How Did I Find Myself Here?”
The mere notion of Steve Wynn reviving his old band nearly thirty years after their last album seems unnecessary on paper (especially without long retired original guitarist Karl Precoda), but consider this—not only did it turn out his best album in well over a decade, it’s also… pretty vital. Go past expected barnburners “80 West” and “Glide” and you’ll find stuff that sounds like nothing Wynn or the band has done before, such as the title track, an eleven-minute jazz-rock opus that miraculously never wears out its welcome, or stirring, mid-tempo sigh “Like Mary”. And fellow long-lost band member Kendra Smith’s unexpected return on “Kendra’s Dream” is just icing on what turns out to be a very sturdy confection.

“Kendra’s Dream”:

10. Goldfrapp, “Silver Eye”
Celebrated for never making the same album twice, Goldfrapp at first seems to be reliving their Supernature-era electro-glam glory days on opener and three-chord-wonder “Anymore”. However, all bets are off after that as Silver Eye gradually slithers off in another direction. Unlike the elegant, predominantly acoustic settings of Tales of Us, this opts for an equally atmospheric but darker, overtly synthetic tone. Apart from the occasional pick-me-up like “Everything Is Never Enough”, these songs mostly blur together, forming a distinct sonic whole—and this is not a bad thing. Rarely have Alison and Will stitched together such a consistent set of songs that seem to echo off each other, barreling towards a truly exciting finish on the tremendous “Ocean”.

“Ocean”:

Best Albums of 2017: # 15, 14, 13

15. Sparks, “Hippopotamus”
On their first non-collaborative studio effort in nearly a decade, Ron and Russell Mael offer no head-swerving stylistic shifts like they’ve done throughout their career. Still, it’s awfully hard to dismiss an album with song titles like “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play” as merely more of the same. As always with Sparks, their 23rd (!) full-length forever vacillates between inspired snark (“What The Hell Is It This Time?”) and unexpected sincerity (the wistful “I Wish You Were Fun”), with lovingly arch odes to sexual positions, IKEA and French filmmakers, not to mention the title star of “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”, to which they lend their most immediate hook in ages.

“Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”:

14. The Mountain Goats, “Goths”
Glorious, knowingly overwrought opener “Rain In Soho” is everything you’d ever want in a tribute to the black-clad, clove-smoking boys and girls who worship at the altar of Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees; what makes the rest of Goths so startling is that it falls closer to the likes of Steely Dan on the aural/tonal spectrum, albeit with “no guitars!” (as indicated in the liner notes.) John Darnielle may not be above name dropping the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy (“Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds”), but he’s not aiming for straight homage or all-out satire. He’s been in the trenches but is now far removed from them, and the distance allows for uncommon perspective.

“Rain In Soho”:

13. Destroyer, “ken”
In which Dan Bejar throws us another curveball in a career shaped by a batting cage full of them. On first listen, this resembles the Pet Shop Boys meet yacht rock ennui of his best album, Kaputt—especially on New Order-riffic single “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood”. Ah, but you can’t reduce ken to just that as a good chunk of it is much darker and also just plain bizarre, if enchantingly so (marvel at how he repeats the lyric “I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist” seven times in a row, as if the record’s skipping on “Sky’s Grey”.) On top of all that, he goes out on the most massive-sounding pop song he may ever write—naturally, its title is in French.

“Tinseltown Swimming In Blood”:

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.

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.