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”:

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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.

Favorite Albums: 2010-2014

 

Having recently posted my top 25 movies of the first half of the 2010’s, here’s the same for favorite albums of that period.

I came up with the top three right away, although I debated the order. Gryner ends up at # 1 because it’s the flawless ten-song pop album I always hoped she’d deliver (you likely haven’t heard of it—despite a nearly 20-year career, this Canadian singer/songwriter has remained obscure due to releasing all of her music (save one early major-label album) independently.) Kaputt is still a singular listen (yacht rock equal parts Steely Dan and Pet Shop Boys), taking me to an unlikely happy place every time, while Random Access Memories is the rare zeitgeist release that aptly sums up the past, defines the present and looks ahead to the future.

Based on year-end best-of lists, I’m not surprised I Know What Love Isn’t, Dottie’s Charms and Heartthrob all ended up in the top ten, since each originally placed at # 1 or 2 in their respective years (and, despite being only my fifth-favorite Saint Etienne album, Words and Music… is admittedly pretty good). With hindsight, 2010 had a few shifts: One Life Stand (#3 in 2010) and I Speak Because I Can (#4) now rate higher than Love and Its Opposite (#1) and IRM (#2)—let’s just say that the Thorn and Gainsbourg albums were fervently anticipated at the time, while I initially had no expectations for the others. The one record that has grown on me the most is Pickin’ Up The Pieces: #5 in 2011, it’s nearly as perfect a ten-song pop album as Northern Gospel.

As with the 2000’s (and as I get older), it’s a challenge trying to recognize any trends here. I find myself increasingly relying on new releases by artists familiar to me, so when a Haim or Janelle Monae emerges, it’s a big deal—especially as some longtime favorites take increasingly longer breaks between releases (I’m looking at you, Apple, Lekman, Saadiq, Thorn and Robyn). Fortunately, 2015 is shaping up to be an exceptional year for new music; I’ve already heard at least four albums that would easily place on this list.

1. Emm Gryner, Northern Gospel
2. Destroyer, Kaputt
3. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
4. Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t
5. Fitz and the Tantrums, Pickin’ Up The Pieces
6. Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can
7. Hot Chip, One Life Stand
8. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
9. Saint Etienne, Words and Music By Saint Etienne
10. Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms
11. Tracey Thorn, Love and Its Opposite
12. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
13. Future Islands, Singles
14. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
15. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
16. The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers
17. Haim, Days Are Gone
18. Hot Chip, In Our Heads
19. Sam Phillips, Push Any Button
20. Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle
21. Robyn, Body Talk
22. Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM
23. Alison Moyet, The Minutes
24. Rufus Wainwright, Out Of The Game
25. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues