Sunday, January 21, 2018

Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.

By the end of 2017, this was the biggest category of all the ones I was tracking. This was partly due to it being a catchall for everything that didn’t fit elsewhere, but it was also just a good year for rock and folk music. Not only was my Top 25 dominated by it, including bands like The Clientele, The Courtneys, Spoon, Hiss Golden Messenger, Warhaus, etc., but my listening was as well. Whether seeking catharsis or comfort, it was often something from this realm that hit the mark. And if you’re still debating the medical status of guitar-based artists, you’ll find plenty of signs of life below. First,  some of the excellent albums I covered in previous posts but couldn’t shoehorn into the Top 25.

Beck - Colors
Iron & Wine - Beast Epic

Historian - Expanse
Mastodon - Emperor of Sand

These artists were on the included Epic Tracks playlist, which also had great songs from The Feelies and LCD Soundsystem among others - maybe you’ll like the rest of their albums more than I did. 

Versing - Nirvana Yes, it’s very cheeky for a band from Seattle to call their album Nirvana, but this is no Kurt Cobain homage. What we have here is a four-piece, two-guitar steamroller with touches of Kraut-and math rock. When I saw them open for The Courtneys at Park Church Co-Op, they were drilled and tight as hell, gaining confidence and even swagger from that solid foundation of technique. My instant reaction was that these guys have worked really hard and now they’re ready. Are you?

Wire - Silver/Lead So many bands draw on Wire’s influence (Versing, for one) that it seems almost unfair that they’re still making records this good forty years on from their debut. Silver/Lead is the fourth release since their last lineup change and it’s just a hairsbreadth off from the standard they set with Change Becomes Us in 2010. So that means all the sleek interleaved guitars and hypnotic rhythms you could ask for, married to insinuating melodies delivered in an almost conspiratorial whisper. And is that nearly a love song I hear in Forever & a Day, with Graham Lewis crooning “Ooooh I want you to stay”? Maybe you CAN teach old post-punks new tricks. 

Ulrika Spacek - Modern English Decoration Two guitars? Driving rhythms?  Wire influence? Two guys named Rhys? Check, check, check and check! In short, a very modern English rock band, and a very good one. This is their second album and if you heard The Album Paranoia, their debut from 2016, you pretty much know what to expect. It’s nice that there are still some things we can count on these days.

UV-TV - Glass The post-punk dream is also alive for this Florida trio, who work up an impressive storm of sound for a three-piece. The best songs have Rose Vastola on lead vocals - she's a force of nature - but there's only a slight let-down when Ian Bernacett takes the mike. By managing to sound more original and fresh than some others mining this territory (Omni, Preoccupations) they not only got my attention but kept it.

Self Defense Family - Wounded Masculinity Just for song titles alone, SDF is always worth keeping an eye out for and this four-song EP and the single Bastard Form are no exception. Musically speaking, the first is late-night, spoken-word musings with skeletal backing, like outtakes by The Doors but without Jim Morrison's grandiosity. Mary Devoured By Horses is especially cinematic and haunting, Lynchian, even. Bastard Form is also subdued but high-tension, with a steady pulse on both songs. One could question why the band hasn't put out an album since 2015, when they usually release nearly "enough" songs each year. The answer is that they have become masters of the short-form collection, which is only further borne out by 2017's releases.

Palm - Shadow Expert By honing their sound - mathy rhythms, post-minimalist guitars, sweet vocals - and their songs, this Philly foursome has come up with their most impressive release yet in this six-song EP. Rock Island, their second LP, drops February 9th, 2018 and if they can maintain the quality it should be truly extraordinary.

Crumb - Locket This is another band that just keeps getting better and better, with their jazzy, exploratory sound meshing perfectly with singer/guitarist Lila Ramani's smoky deadpan. Four songs are not enough when they are this woozily delightful. They must have more material, as they are going on an extensive tour this spring, so here's hoping an album is coming in the near future.

Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology Hypnotic rhythms power Weaver's songs, which draw inspiration from the Velvet Underground, Can and The Walker Brothers circa Nite Flights - a sure sign of great taste - but her light touch is all her own.

Chastity Belt - I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone While it may be a cheap comparison to lump these Seattle rockers together with The Courtneys just because they’re both all-girl bands, the fact remains that they provide similar satisfactions: tuneful, chiming guitars, driving rhythms, clear, honest singing. Now, Chastity Belt is not yet the unstoppable force The Courtneys have become, but the way they continue to grow up in public makes for compelling listening on several levels. I’m rooting for them - they’re just the turn of a key (sorry) from greatness.

Diet Cig - Swear I'm Good At This I've been following this guitar and drums duo since it seemed like they were more of an idea than a band. Now, they are an unexpectedly polished music-supervisor's dream, with great tunes and up-to-the minute lyrics (Link In Bio, etc.). I truly admire how hard they've worked and the album is a feast of fun - but I might get hungry again soon.

Angel Olson - Phases This grab-bag of covers, outtakes and previously uncollected songs occasionally finds Olson slipping into vocal mannerisms. But it's mostly another example, like 2016's My Woman, of her imperious, phenomenal power as both a singer and a songwriter. 

Jen Cloher - Jen Cloher When an artist releases a self-titled album in the middle of their career, it usually signals some kind of reinvention or at least a request for reevaluation. Smart move on Cloher's part, as not only does she have more attention on her now as the partner of Courtney Barnett (in love and in their company, Milk! Records), but this is also her most assured - she calls it "honest" - album yet. Barnett helps out on guitar and vocals but the songs are all by Cloher and they reveal a keenly observant and emotionally connected songwriter. She also knows the power of the groove, as evidenced by Analysis Paralysis, which locks into that Velvet Underground swing and doesn't let up for almost eight glorious minutes. I was not a fan of Lotta Sea Lice, Barnett's collaboration with Kurt Vile, but I am happy to report that at least one great album came out of their little corner of Melbourne in 2017.

Warbly Jets - Warbly Jets This is that other kind of self-titled album, a debut, and the two word review is: It rocks! Big riffs, bigger choruses, thrashing rhythms, and smart production distinguish these California boys from the competition. Two of the Jets have a New York pedigree, with Julien O'neill (synth) formerly in Napoleon and Samuel Shea (vocals, guitar) an erstwhile member of Spires, two bands I enjoyed a great deal. Warbly Jets is far more commercial sounding - arena ready, even - than their NYC bands, but it is also way too sincere and, above all, FUN to feel like a cash grab. This is one to gleefully throw in the faces of all those "rock is dead" blowhards.

Roger Waters - Is This The Life We Really Want? Speaking of arena-ready, consider the fact that over 30 years after his last album with Pink Floyd, Waters still tops concert sales playing material that's even older. This is due partly to the quality of most Pink Floyd, but also to his brilliant use of stadia as the perfect theatrical venues, with spectacular, immersive production values setting a new standard on tour after tour. While I've respected his abilities to stay on top of the touring market, I certainly didn't have any expectations for a new album from Waters. But when I heard he was working with genius producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck, Paul McCartney) and had even added contemporary guitar/production wizard Jonathan Wilson into the mix, I was intrigued. The results are far better than anything Waters has been involved with since Animals in 1977 (yes, even The Wall, which is a bit of a mess to these ears), filled with darkly moving meditations on the state of the world in jewel-like settings devised by Godrich, Wilson and other experts like drummer Joey Waronker and keyboard player Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. 

There are two things holding back ITTLWRW from true greatness, however. The first is Waters's voice, a dry and pinched instrument which, while he does the best he can with it, is ultimately ill-suited to his melodic ambitions. The second is the overwhelming sense of familiarity. Even though he is obviously one of the architects of the classic Floyd sound and has ownership over its moody magnificence in that sense, in another he's practically ripping himself off. Still, it's a highly listenable affair and a more than credible calling card to take on the road. I saw the show and the new songs sounded even better with a some live energy behind them and fit in well with the classics, especially a large chunk of Animals. The visuals were often astonishing and Waters had some of the best back-up you can imagine, including both Wilson and Waronker, guitar god Dave Kilminster, and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius on vocal support. The cherry on top was his blunt anti-Trump messaging, which was very satisfying to see writ large in an arena setting.

Gregg Allman - Southern Blood Roger Waters is 74 and not the most productive record-maker so I wouldn't be surprised if his latest album turns out to be his last. Unfortunately, we know this is Allman's last, as he died in 2017. It's a decent capstone to his career, with some impeccably chosen songs (Tim Buckley's Once I Was, Dylan's Going Going Gone, Little Feat's Willin'), but Don Was is kind of a cheesy producer and poor health had drained Allman's voice of some of its bluesy richness. Things definitely take off more on the live songs included on the deluxe edition, which makes sense as Allman was one of the great road warriors of all time. Ride on, Midnight Rider.

David Bowie - No Plan The now-classic Lazarus with two excellent songs and one good one from the Blackstar sessions, thankfully freed from the slog of the Lazarus cast recording.

Matthew E. White & Flo Morrissey - Gentlewoman, Ruby Man Like a lot of albums of cover songs, your own relationship to the material included here may dictate how much you enjoy their interpretations. So, for me that means I can't stand the takes on the Velvet Underground's Sunday Morning or Leonard Cohen's Suzanne - some songs are sacred. The exception is Frank Ocean's Thinking About You, which works great as a duet, and it's nice to think about the song becoming kind of a standard. It is in my house! Grease is just a bad song, but almost everything else is pure gold, especially opener Look At What The Light Did Now, rescuing a Little Wings song from obscurity, and the Euro-pop of Nino Ferrer's Looking For You, with its spectacular synth solo. Kind of a holding-pattern album for White, however, as we await his follow-up to 2015's Fresh Blood.

Mastodon - Cold Dark Place Mastodon may also be in transition, as they followed up Emperor Of Sand, very nearly a return to the heights of Leviathan and The Hunter, with this somewhat exploratory four-song EP. While it still gets heavy, there's a space-rock vibe and a new level of delicacy and detail to the layers of guitars that is truly glorious. Where to next, boys?


Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness This hushed, interior album reveals itself only after several listens, but when it comes into focus it's a knockout. Byrne possesses some of Nadia Reid's dignity and grace as well as her ability to conjure indelible melodies seemingly out of thin air. The production, focusing on her voice and finger-picked acoustic, is beyond sympathetic even approaching perfection with little touches like the breathy synth on Melting Grid. A special album, indeed.

Florist - If Blue Could Be Happiness When I saw Florist open for Mutual Benefit back in 2016, I was immediately captivated by the songs and singing of Emily Sprague. I bought the debut album, The Birds Outside Sang, from the merch table and confirmed her skills at constructing songs that were delicate yet sturdy and very personal. This new album is quieter and features more acoustic guitar and perhaps one too many slow songs, but her lyrics are as connected as ever and married to melodies that display a deep understanding of how someone like Leonard Cohen made things work. Sprague is so sad on this album yet so charming and lively on Twitter - perhaps her recent move to California will allow some of that to bubble into the music.

Hand Habits - Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void) Like Florist, this is really the project of one woman, Meg Duffy, also originally from upstate New York and now located in California. Duffy plays guitar and keyboards and has been on the road with Kevin Morby's band for a while. Although she has released a few intriguing if unfocused songs under the Hand Habits moniker going back to 2014, this is her true debut. And a very impressive one at that, with a distinctive, trebly sound and songs that draw you through the album like chapters in a good story. By the time you get to Demand It, the sixth song, you should be fully onboard - I know I was.

Caroline Says - 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong Both the name of the band (based on the Lou Reed song) and the album are either acts of extreme self-deprecation or hubris. I'm going with the former, as Caroline Sallee's whole approach is so gentle, with touches of fun, that you can't help think she's having a laugh. But it would probably be more like a rueful chuckle, if these mostly melancholy tunes are as true-life as they sound. The album jumps around a bit, from indie rock to almost straight folk, betraying a slight lack of focus. Based on the promise contained within, and the fact that it was recorded some time ago, I don't however, her next album should be a stunner.

Big Thief - Capacity While I miss some of the band feel from Big Thief's debut album, Masterpiece (speaking of hubris vs. self-deprecation!), leader Adrienne Lenker is the real deal. Her singing is always aimed at true communication and the way she develops hooks almost casually, as with that little "ooh" on Shark Smile, is brilliant. Mary really feels like a solo track as Lenker pushes into her  high register accompanied only by piano and some atmospherics. It's gorgeous and whether it bodes an even more solitary sound in the future or the band becomes more prominent again, sign me up.

Aaron Roche - HaHa HuHu This record is so singular I wish I had more time to talk about it here. From quiet instrumentals, like album closer Sig Beeg Sig Moor, which has guitarist's guitarist Phil Keaggy duetting with Roche, to The Terror, featuring the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, or Florida, "Recorded live in a stairwell by Aaron Roche and Helga Davis," this is quite a journey into a very talented, very eclectic mind - and one with a killer rolodex. Roche is so eclectic, in fact, that I first discovered him as the producer of The Perfect Nothing Catalog, featuring the work of composer Conrad Winslow, and one of my favorite classical albums of 2017. I have no idea where Roche will go next, but I can tell you that I am following him on every channel I can.

I live for new songs from Holly Miranda and 2017 was bookended by Midnight Oil, a moving Chris Williamson cover released to benefit the Standing Rock protestors, and Exquisite, a stunning duet with TV On The Radio's Kyp Malone. Even better, the latter was the first single from her third Album, Mutual Horse, out on February 23rd. A good sign for 2018!


Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer - Not Dark Yet This is the first album these singing sisters have recorded together and it is also the best thing Lynne has done since I Am Shelby Lynne back in 1999. The production is rich, the song choices are on point, like the Dylan-penned title track, Merle Haggard's Silver Wings, or even Nirvana's Lithium, and nothing gets in the way of their voices, which are masterful. They also co-wrote the closing track, Is It Too Much, which deals head-on with their tragic past and how the bond of their sisterhood helped them survive it. If they want to collaborate some more, either as songwriters or just singers, you'll get no argument from me.

Wild Ponies - Galax While this sometimes triggers my anti-hoedown reflex, at least Doug and Telisha Jones come by it honestly, having recorded the album in a barn in Virginia featuring a combination of Nashville pros and local heroes. I also miss Doug's wicked Telecaster, which has been MIA since Things That Used To Shine came out a few years ago. But when they sink into a ballad like Hearts And Bones (not the Paul Simon song), it's sigh-inducing, a pure breath of fresh country air.

Whew. Listen to tracks from all of these artists here or below, and if you want the full dump from this category, dig into the 13-hour 2017 Archive (Rock, Folk, Etc.). Keep up with 2018's glories, goodies and near-misses here and, as always, let me know what I'm missing.

You may also enjoy: 
Best Of 2017: The Top 25

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