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”:

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Best Albums of 2015: Honorable Mentions

I’m limiting myself to a top ten list for best albums this year. Tomorrow, the countdown begins, one per day for the next ten days. As a prelude, here are a few other albums I really liked that didn’t make the cut, in alphabetical order by artist:

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Sarah Cracknell, “Red Kite”

Bypassing the dance-pop of both her last solo album (1997’s Lipslide) and Words and Music by Saint Etienne, Cracknell returns with pastoral folk rock—not a likely fit for the queen of effortless cool, but it mostly works, especially when she leans towards that spectrum’s poppier side (“Nothing Left To Talk About”, “Hearts Are For Breaking”).

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Destroyer, “Poison Season”

Dan Bejar was never going to top Kaputt, and although this opts for a noticeably different, more organic, orchestral feel, it generally plays like a logical progression from its predecessor. Still, who would have expected to spot such influences as Bruce Springsteen (“Dream Lover”), Tin Pan Alley (the second half of “Bangkok”) or, um, the old theme to The People’s Court (“Midnight Meets The Rain”)?

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Jose Gonzalez, “Vestiges and Claws”

This Swedish folksinger’s first effort in eight years initially sounds a little monochromatic; however, as with the last Kings of Convenience record (now six years ago!), it’s an intentional part of the overall, intricate design. The irresistibly rhythmic “Let It Carry You” remains the highlight; however, with each spin, additional bits and pieces have begun leaving imprints.

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Emm Gryner, “21st Century Ballads”

Exactly what the title claims, and admittedly a challenging listen from someone who always balanced out her more introspective moments with gloriously catchy, radio-friendly anthems. Fortunately, opener “The Race” is as good as anything she’s ever done, and much of the rest is interesting enough that she remains a mostly unknown artist still worth seeking out.

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Joanna Newsom, “Divers”

The title track (whose Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video I’ve posted above) may be the loveliest thing she’s done thus far, and while the rest is more approachable than some of her earlier, impenetrable stuff (think Ys), I’m still trying to decipher much of it. As with Gonzalez, I’m willing to work to find those hidden pearls—especially after witnessing how delightful she was in Anderson’s last feature.

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Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love”

Finally, vindication that their last record, 2005’s overrated sludgefest The Woods was not entirely the direction they meant to take. Although this reunion album doesn’t hold a candle to anything spanning Dig Me Out to One Beat, the world of indie rock was a little lacking without Corin and Carrie’s overlapping words and guitars (and Janet’s fierce drumming), so call it a welcome, unexpected return.

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Twin Shadow, “Eclipse”

Half of this LP plays like a singles collection, and I can’t fathom why the top 40 has turned a deaf ear to euphoric, 80s-inspired gems such as “When The Lights Turn Out”, “Old Love/New Love” and “I’m Ready”, especially in a year when something inferior like Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” gets played to death. Granted, Eclipse’s other half is moodier and far less consistent, but in the iTunes era, half a great album is nothing to scoff at.