Without delving into the specifics of which we all know so very well, 2017 was certainly a period of turbulence, uncertainty, painfulness, and all manner of sufferings that continuously led us into our extended state of societal anxiety. Honestly, there is simply no way to turn away from it all, and as for myself, I often found my spirit deflating and descending into alternating periods of despair, anger, resignation, and just points where I wish that I could find a real world "Wayback Machine," as we all saw in episodes of "Mr. Peabody," and just return to a simpler time...at least, a simpler time in my mind. For right now, I am often feeling just like the lyric in Todd Rundgren's 1973 classic "Sometimes I Don't Know What To Feel," in which he sings, "Someone said the world's gonna end and I think it's true..."
Yes, I feel like that and I would not be surprised if you did as well.
But there was much else in the world that served to provide the proper solace. Family and like minded friends, most certainly, as their presence assisted greatly in helping me feel less alone in the universe. Yet, for the purposes of this blogsite, you know that I am focusing on the music of 2017, which was bountiful in totality and overall quality. Years ago, I wrote an entry for this blogsite that questioned whatever has happened to the protest song. For 2017, we received a powerfully effective amount of compelling music that spoke directly to the times, holding up dark mirrors to the goings-ons as well as to our emotional states, as we often danced ourselves to exhaustion.
At this time, I am so happy to share with you the first half of my favorite releases of 2017, all of which are presented in alphabetical order.
Released February 17, 2017
-The ever prolific Ryan Adams returned with one of the best albums he has released to date, the collection of post-romance torch songs entitled "Prisoner." Exquisitely written, warmly produced, and expertly sung and performed (with Adams on the lion's share of the instruments), "Prisoner" combines power ballads, country tinged heartache, interior monologues, and English rain drenched meditations into a wrenching song cycle that suggests the marriage of Bruce Springsteen and The Smiths while continuing to carve out new roads in Ryan Adams' exceedingly impressive and idiosyncratic artistic paths. For some one who has written as many ballads and odes to a broken heart as Adams has, I honestly do not know how he keeps everything so fresh, so naked, so exposed to the nerve endings as he does. To that end, "Prisoner" also showcases Adams' diligent attention to quality control as he also released a double album's worth of B-sides (from a reportedly 80 songs recorded for the album) as an addendum to the main event and as terrific as those songs are, he truly picked the very best and most devastating of the batch.
Released July 28, 2017
-My list begins with an album that was surprisingly controversial as well as surprisingly maligned, and as far as I am concerned unfairly so. Now, truth be told, I have harbored a certain prickly affection for Arcade Fire over the years, as their status as critical darlings and a certain self-conscious/self-congratulatory streak of art for art's sake from the band that kept me a tad resistant at times. Yet, with their previous double album "Reflektor" (released October 28, 2013)--and despite those endless minutes upon minutes of barely audible ambient sounds that close that album's second disc--Arcade Fire enraptured me in ways that they quite hadn't accomplished for me since their rightly celebrated debut "Funeral" (released September 14, 2004).
With the arrival of their fifth album "Everything Now," the band has decided to continue exploring their music via the cocaine 70s dance floor rhythms they began on "Reflektor" but this time, have channeled them into an equal parts ironic and impassioned examination of our current emotional and spiritual landscape and yes indeed, what a dark and bumpy ride the experience is, even with the propulsive rhythms and melodies of the album's title track, "Creature Comfort," "Signs Of Life," "Electric Blue," the sinister suicide funk of "Good God Damn," and the clever wordplay contained within the two-part punk rock/country hybrid "Infinite Content"/"Infinite_Content."
Like U2's unfairly maligned album "Pop" (released March 3, 1997), Arcade Fire's "Everything Now" confronts our era of extremism and instant gratification with an approach that dials down the self-conscious earnestness of their past albums in favor of the aforementioned sense of irony and perhaps that was oft-putting to critics and fans as the band presented a landscape in which every listener is fully complicit in our societal ills that have left us entitled and spiritually empty. I found this album to be an eclectic, electric work that served as a commentary as well as a dire warning.
Released January 20, 2017
-Out of all of the opening acts that I have seen throughout my life, one of the finest was easily the band Cherry Glazerr who I happened to see opening for The Flaming Lips this past April. The band performed a pile driving set that often reminded me of the psychedelic alt-rock fury of The Smashing Pumpkins during their "Gish" era. They impressed me so very much that I went scouring for their album over the weekend after the show and I can only gather that they impressed quite a number of concert attendees because every record store in town was sold out of their 2017 release, entitled "Apocalipstick." By the time my copy of the album finally arrived at B-Side Records, I was excited to hear that the album itself was more than worth the wait.
Led by 19 year old singer/songwriter/guitarist Clementine Creevy, Cherry Glazerr's "Apocalipstick" polishes up the band's garage rock aesthetics without losing any of the sharpness of their musical teeth. Where "Told You I'd Be With The Guys" showcases Creevy's unapologetic feminism, she and her bandmates also are more than ready to embrace the silliness with the pungent "Trash People," glam rock stomps and roars with "Moon Dust," "Humble Pro," "Nurse Ratched" and "Sip O' Poison," melodic melancholia via "Only Kid On The Block" and prog rock fantasia on "Lucid Dreams" and the behemoth title track.
Filled with shrieks and fury, ear candy melodies, and propelled by Sashami Ashworth's warm keyboards and synths and the dry, 1970's wallop of Tabor Allen's drums, Cherry Glazerr delivered one of the very best rock albums of the year without question.
Released June 9, 2017
-It always amazes me how artists that happen to not possess a high public profile or release terribly much material are indeed able to sustain themselves between projects. In the case of singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer Mr. Cody ChesnuTT (yes, he of the inexplicable two capital T's in his last name), I have pondered this very question considerably as his artistry is indeed revered highly within sectors of the so-called "neo soul" movement as evidenced through his connections with the likes of Macy Gray, The Roots and Yaslin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) as well as the initial splash he received with his often startling, often juvenile debut double album "The Headphone Masterpiece" (released September 24, 2002)--an album, I ridiculously thought was called "The Chocolate Mixtape" on a recent episode of my radio show...Savage Retraction indeed!
Now, fifteen years later and with only one full length album released in the interim, ChesnuTT arrives with his most mature, fully realized vision to date in "My Love Divine Degree," an exploration of ever evolving manhood, purpose and positivity within the Black community and the continuing ascension of the spirit in these turbulent times through communal means of uplift. ChesnuTT's aesthetic remains as authentic and as pure as ever as he blends musical genres of soul, hip-hop, rock, D.I.Y. punk rock, funk and gospel into a vibrant music stew held together by the think, gritty soulfulness of his voice.
And trust me, if the addictive "Make A Better Man" is not riveted to your brain after the first listen, then I just cannot deal wit cha!!!
Released April 7, 2017
-The veritable mirror to ourselves was held upright with dynamic flash, fervent zeal and unapologetic urgency with Andre Cymone's muscular "1969," an album that evokes and updates the socio-political struggles and music of the past into a propulsive collection of soul music for the 21st century.
Eschewing with any traces of what could be remotely described as the "Minneapolis sound," of which Cymone was a pioneer alongside the likes of childhood friends and classmates Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Dez Dickerson, Morris Day, Jesse Johnson and most definitely, the artist forever known as Prince, in favor of a sonic delivery that echoes the music that inspired him, Andre Cymone's "1969" musically feels like a trip up and down the radio dial of days long gone as rock, soul, funk, folk and traces of late '60s psychedelia are weaved into the album's songs that display an evocative narrative of life as it is lived in 2017 America...especially if you happen to be a Black man.
With a punchy production that will make your speakers vibrate and a vocal style that at times becomes quite Dylan-esque in its cadence, tracks like "We All Need Somethin',""Money," "Breathin' Out, Breathin' In," and the provocative and impassioned double shot of "Black Man In America" and "Black Lives Matter" and more, Cymone's musical vision expertly merges the nostalgia with a palpable political urgency that is as up-to-the-minute as the nightly news.
FATHER JOHN MISTY
Released April 7, 2017
-As with some of you, there are times that I long to toss Josh Tillman, otherwise known as Father John Misty over a cliff. His snarky, overly self-congratulatory sense of hipster irony and superiority over other musicians is so terribly oft putting that it does tend to showcase social media at its worst, so much so that I have even questioned precisely why I ever fell for his music in the first place, most notably, "I Love You, Honeybear" (released February 9, 2015), the still extraordinary manifesto primarily detailing the origin and continuation of his marriage. But wouldn't you know it. Just at the point when I was truly more than ready to pass Father John Misty by, solely out of sheer annoyance for everything other than his music, he goes ahead and releases a new album that is even better.
While the sweeping orchestrations of the previous album have been dialed down a tad in favor of more ornate strings and orchestrations, Father John Misty's "Pure Comedy" is an atheist's view of existence, from the beginning of time to our inevitable extinction in perhaps the next 20 years with fame, the environment, technology, success, failure, compassion, brutality and seemingly all other subject matter contained in life and the universe all shoved dead in the center.
It is an album of stunning hopelessness in which Misty finds the act of existing to be the ultimate cosmic joke in an unforgiving, unrepentant cosmos. Even so, and as bleak as it is, "Pure Comedy" is an album of stunning, binding beauty (as well as one shattering one-liner after another--I mean, honestly...how does he write like this?!) as Misty evokes early '70s Elton John/ Bernie Taupin at their most caustic for this collection of extended ruminations, the most remarkable being the album's 13 minute centerpiece "Leaving L.A."
I also loved tremendously how Father John Misty again approached the entirety of the album presentation itself as being essential pieces of the work of art as a whole. From the intensely detailed and subtlety grotesque Hieronymus Bosch styled album artwork, to Misty's interior (and brilliantly written) essay as well as the thick lyric booklet, a enormous amount of time, patience and care went into every element of this lavishly presented work that I do not believe for even one minute that this is an artist cavalier or nihilistic enough about the nature of existence or that he is above basic humanity. On the contrary, I think an album of this nature, concept and detail fully describes just precisely how passionate of a humanist and how deeply afraid of extinction he actually is.
Father John Misty's "Pure Comedy" is a work of tremendous empathy as this artist stares with incredulity at our own madness and also one where the greatest lacerations are self-inflicted.
"CONCRETE AND GOLD"
Released September 15, 2017
-This was my favorite rock and roll album of the year hands down and it is also the album that I had long hoped for the band to create (yes, I am still holding out for them to make that one-of-a-kind freaky album, but even so...).
Building upon the previous few releases, which found Foo Fighters exploring analog recordings, collaborations with a variety of different musical artists, recording in various cities and states across the country and now returning to the confines of a recording studio, "Concrete And Gold" is a rainbow colored celebration of all of the musical lessons learned over these past several years and executed with an even larger musical paintbox featuring the colors contained within stacked harmony vocals, band musical chairs and surprising guest appearances (Sir Paul McCartney on drums while drummer Taylor Hawkins handles lead vocals in "Sunday Rain" is an album highlight). I do believe that it is easy to take a band like this for granted as they have remained so present, so dependable, so constant in their approach and aesthetic. But, I also believe that it is rare to find a rock band of their status and history who continue to not only sound so committed to their craft, but remain so inspired to keep pushing ahead, determined to make music that can possibly scorch the sky.
Released June 30, 2017
-For one who has really never been a Jay-Z fan, this album unquestionably sits within the top three releases of the year, in my opinion, as this album is a staggeringly brilliant work.
Merging the searing self-examination of John Lennon with the socio-political lessons of African-American self-preservation courtesy of James Brown, Jay-Z's "4:44," opens in turbulence, pain and brutal self-lacerations and revelations and concludes with redemption, renewal and a palpable sense of devotion and ascension. Jay-Z's 13th studio album is a masterpiece of re-invention, showcasing that a newfound vulnerability proves to be more powerfully raw than the tired, cliched swagger and bravado of old.
Where album opener "Kill Jay Z," destroys the persona, therefore the ego, "The Story Of O.J.," confronts the ways White America views Black Americans regardless of status and how Black Americans view ourselves and in ways, hold ourselves down. The astounding "Legacy" finds Jay-Z speaking to his children, informing them of his plans and hopes for their lives once he passes on, "Smile" celebrates his Mother and her life as a lesbian while confronting the double lives we all experience with our personal private and public personas, and of course, there is the album's centerpiece, the dark-night-of-the soul title track, a wrenching apology that is startling in its blunt candor and exposed nerve ending emotion, considering the source, an artists who truly kept his cards clenched to his chest.
With no offense to Beyonce or to the legion of listeners who beloved "Lemonade" (released April 23, 2016), I have to say that I couldn't quite trust it as I just have issues with an army of writers, musicians, producers and even filmmakers all jumping at the beck and call of an individual to write even one song. To me, it just felt like a factory rather than inspiration at work, regardless of the results. For me, Jay-Z's "4:44," in which the participants were essentially down to himself and one producer in No I.D. , the overall purity of the art rather than the full pop machine felt to be at the forefront and it was the absence of the machine that seemed to produce the eventual rawness necessary to bring his hard earned lessons of the nurturing and growth of the self, the Black family, the Black community and the Black nation into blinding focus.
Yet in full credit to Beyonce, there possibly would not have been a "4:44" without her "Lemonade," perhaps making the two albums hip-hop/R&B's answer to John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Double Fantasy" (released November 17, 1980).
Released June 20, 2017
-I do not care what any music critics or publications say or have already said, Kainalu's interstellar funk dream entitled "Love Nebula" was THE song of the summer of 2017!! Hell, for me, it just may have been the song of the entire year!!!
"Blume Lagoon," the six song debut EP from Madison, WI's very own Kainalu, is the brainchild of singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Trent Prall, and he, without question, created the most addictive release I heard all year long.
With its devotion to its wall of analog synths, suggesting that Prall fully raided Stevie Wonder's closets and an aesthetic that adheres strongly to Prall's Hawaiian heritage, Kainalu's "Blume Lagoon" evokes a psychedelic tranquility that simultaneously inspires your hips to sway luxuriously to the crystal rhythms found in the Barry White groove of "Older Than I Am," the crush drenched dreamworld of "Girls," the Tame Impala styled introspection of EP closer "Wasting Away" and believe me, I am just unable to express words effective enough to convey the musical miracle that is "Love Nebula."
"Blume Lagoon" is one incredible calling card and not just for the exceedingly fruitful music community of Madison, WI. Kainalu is the real deal, the arrival of an artist who is truly just getting started and has already birthed an immense amount of excitement from me as I anxiously await what will arrive next.
Stay tuned for the remainder of the list including, my #1 favorite album of 2017!!!