Thank you all for your patience as some of my real word responsibilities have kept me from writing and posting new material for Synesthesia. So, without any further hesitation, we now continue with the compilation of my favorite music releases of 2017, including my pick for Album Of The Year.
Released September 1, 2017
-Just as I have already written to you back in September 2017, when this album was first released, LCD Soundsystem, the musical brainchild of bandleader/songwriter/singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist James Murphy, made a spectacular return five years after their official breakup and the overall effect could not have been more timely.
"American Dream," a nearly 70 minute release starring 10 songs which return and extend the LCD aesthetic of post-punk rock, dance floor rhythms filtered through Talking Heads/David Bowie/late 1970's CBGB.'S nostalgia that simultaneously speaks to the precarious pulse of contemporary 21st century society, made for a pitch perfect representation of middle aged malaise and anxiety in our increasingly turbulent landscape.
With a delivery that feels as earnest as it does bemused with the fact that these are indeed the times in which we are all living through, "American Dream" holds up a propulsive mirror to our dark times with a resounding D.I.Y. perfection.
Released June 9, 2017
-One of the year's most glowingly colorful albums arrived from Phoenix, who have finally eclipsed their own creative bar set so beautifully by "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" (released May 25, 2009), with the gorgeously frothy European disco fantasia of "Ti Amo." The melodies, rhythms, performance and production are as sparkling as rainbow lights bouncing off of a technicolor mirrorball making for an album, while not overtly political by any means, that fully exceeds its purpose of eliciting light in the darkness by delivering dance pop music at its most exquisite.
Trust me, I could listen to the warmly longing of the album closer "Telefono" on repeat for days on end.
Released April 28, 2017
-Sometimes, you do not need words-part one...
For his 16th solo album, ambient music pioneer and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto returned with a powerfully devastating yet oddly and warmly personal release "async," an album of avant garde instrumentals that chronicle various explorations of impending mortality, in this case, Sakamoto's.
For some background to the album itself, Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent radiation therapy beginning in 2014, marking this album as his first foray into music since his health crisis. With "async," it feels as if we are being invited to take a deep dive into Sakamoto's personal five stages of grief, so to speak. From gentle piano chords that float off into voids of white noise, to violently cacophonous percussives, unearthly drones, ethereal strings, and hypnotically glacial dreamworld pacing, we can gather the levels of denial, anger, depression, and bargaining at work and in creation, therefore making the album in its entirety, a work of acceptance concerning the inevitability of his own eventual finality, where life itself fades into dream, leaving echoes of memories in its wake.
Sobering and stunning.
Released September 29, 2017
-Sometimes you do not need words-part two...
Following up his brilliantly expressive and undeniably innovative film score to Alejandro G. Inarritu's "Birdman" (2014), drummer/composer Antonio Sanchez returns with a blistering instrumental collection that directly provides a brutal retort to a certain President of the United States who began day one of his election campaign by proclaiming all Mexicans as "rapists" and would later describe Mexicans males as "bad hombres."
Meditative and cathartic, Sanchez utilizes his drum kit as a means to explore his heritage, the anger and frustration contained is completely palpable as we are able to hear the continuing struggle, existence and liberation of a people while also exclaiming itself as a compelling musical cycle filled with texture, moods, themes and even full stories.
Please note that "Bad Hombre" is not solely an album of nothing but drum solos. These selections are carefully crafted and curated drum performances, augmented with some electronics, that ebb and flow, build, rise, fall, grow more intense yet recede into pain and sorrow only to blast outwards into fury as if daring that aforementioned President to say even one more disparaging word.
Released June 10, 2017
-One of the year's most beautiful albums arrived right here in Madison, WI from a band who richly deserves any and all positive attention they are fortunate enough to receive.
With their second album "Glances," Skyline Sounds, which is the collective of Alyssa Niemiec (bass guitar, vocals), Mike Niemiec guitar, vocals), Zach Guyette (keyboards, guitar) and Dave Zakos (drums), have superbly raised their own creative bar as "Glances" represents a conceptual work concerning shifting interpersonal and psychological perspectives that blend the cosmic and the concrete through a musical landscape of richly recorded power pop that is by turns elegant, raucous, tranquil, and transportive with guitars that glimmer and chime, keyboards that provide perfect augmentation to the rock and roll energy and drums that furnish that expertly delivered kick.
Additionally, and especially in our digital age, Skyline Sounds created a work that adheres to a more analog time in which the album in its entirety, from the music and lyrics to the overall presentation through cover artwork, liner notes and lyric booklets, was considered to be a complete work of art.
For "Glances," the band concocted a near kaleidoscopic design with an album cover that can subtlety shift its image up to seven configurations and a lyric booklet that contains a series of symbols and corresponding code key that provides thematic links to the songs themselves. Yet, do not be fooled into thinking that what the band has delivered exists as a gimmick. Skyline Sounds has provided the listener with a fully immersive experience, where the visual presentation and the audio congeal blissfully, making the whole of "Glances" a glorious art piece.
To solely purchase a download would be a disservice, as far as I am concerned.
Released May 5, 2017
-And speaking of bands who have triumphantly raised their own creative bars, I now turn to another band local to Madison, WI.
Trophy Dad, the collective of Justin Huber (drums), Abby Sherman (vocals, bass guitar, trumpet), Henry Stoehr (guitars, production) and Jordan Zamansky (vocals, guitars, keyboards, electric piano), who first grabbed my attention nearly two years ago during their terrific set during the Modern Mod farewell concert, as well as with their razor sharp debut EP "Shirtless Algebra Fridays" (released May 22, 2015), truly laid me flat on my back with the arrival of their second EP entitled "Dogman."
What Trophy Dad has achieved this time around is the building and execution of a more cohesive sound and presentation, sonically as well as thematically, making this EP exist as far more than just five songs but more truthfully, a 23 minute suite of bruised and broken ballads that explore sexual relationships, conflicting sexual/gender roles and the uses and abuses of sexual power and finally, the inevitable, and often aching consequences.
"Dogman" opens with a nearly 12 minute one-two punch of the mesmerizing cyclical riff driven "Swig," with this "one-thing-leads-to-another" narrative and the previously released "Addison," a selection of such raw emotional and darkly romantic power that by song's end, delivered through its final, heartbreaking grace note, still leaves me weakened. The EP continues with the brief, downright cruel kiss off of a conceited girl in the ironically titled "And She Succeeded," while the teeth baring "Louis Sachar," explores sexual harassment starring the abuser, the abused and a frozen bystander. "Dogman" closes with "Purple," which feels to be a monologue of alternating periods interior loneliness and despondent rage in the romantic/sexual aftermath.
With this EP, Trophy Dad has arrived with a clearer, tighter focus, which has not only served the songwriting team of Abby Sherman and Jordan Zamansky heroically but also Stoehr's production, which is positively seamless, as there are no pauses between any of the selections, thus giving the listener no time to pause during the indie rock emotional wallop the band provides.
Within the bands that I have had the experience of hearing in the Madison music community there is an inexplicable tenor to Abby Sherman's singing which makes her vocals undeniably captivating--dear listeners, I could listen to her sing all day long. Jordan Zamansky's baritone vocals make for a brilliant counterpoint to Sherman's voice and the melodic blend they create together is as striking as it is surprising with its perfection. As songwriters, I deeply appreciated their candor and their willingness to travel to some deeply uncomfortable emotional territories in order to unearth some unquestionably and equally uncomfortable truths that exists within adult relationships. The rise in maturity is evident, to say the least, and their level of compassion even moreso.
Who knows what will become of the band as Sherman and Zamansky are getting set to graduate from the University Of Wisconsin-Madison. But whatever their future holds, I sincerely hope that Trophy Dad remains a priority as "Dogman" indeed points to a musically bright future.
So...please don't stop now!
"SONGS OF EXPERIENCE"
Released December 1, 2017
-I really need to write a longer, fuller posting concerning this album and maybe I will. But for now, I guess some highlights...
I know that it is trendy to hate U2 at this point in time but in all honestly, for what reasons other than giving away an album for free? It just cannot be because of their longevity for there are bands who are still looming largely upon the Earth that have existed for even greater lengths of time (ahem...The Rolling Stones, for instance). It cannot be for the quality of their songs, for even with material that could be considered as being "weak," the U2 songbook remains one that I would gather most bands would kill for. It also cannot be for any perceived sense of shallowness as lead singer's Bono's activism is legendary, on-going and supremely well thought out.
Who knows the reasons and believe me, I am not here to debate you but as it stands, U2 stands as one of the very few rock and roll bands who can claim to remain intact after 40 years, with absolutely not one lineup change that is still producing music that is as vital, urgent, and heartfelt as anything they released in their collective youths. But of course, there is nothing like "New Year's Day, "Gloria," "Where The Streets Have No Name," I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" to be found on their latest album "Songs Of Experience." And how could there be?
To expect something new as if it arrived from the past would be more than foolish and all we can do is to accept (or not) the band for who they are now: middle aged men who are still passionately holding onto the flame that united them to each other and them to us in the first place. To ask for anything more would be selfish to say the least. And for my money, "Songs Of Experience" represents U2 discovering yet another grace note that for our precarious, intensely political times, and one that I found myself embracing even tighter than I ever expected that I would.
Opening and ending with two hymns, "Love Is All We Have Left" and "13 (There Is A Light)," it feels as if Bono is singing to himself, as well as to all of us, as even he attempts to makes sense of the world we now all exist within, this topsy-turvy through the looking glass existence of Trump and Brexit. And if love is indeed all we have left, then why not sing love songs to the love of your life as evidenced in tracks like "You're The Best Thing About Me" and "Landlady." Or how about a love letter to the very people who placed him upon the world's stage as heard in "The Showman (Little More Better)." Or love songs that are actually veiled political statements towards the refugee crisis ('Red Flag Day," "Summer Of Love"). Or even some glimpses into one's own fears and hard looks into one's own mortality as Bono did indeed experience a couple of serious health issues and one reportedly near death event that has informed some of the lyrical content of the album--"Lights Of Home," the dark club jam of "The Blackout," and "The Little Things that Give You Away."
U2's "Songs Of Experience" is an album that, of course, is designed to serve as the sequel/companion piece to their previous release, the surprisingly warmly interior "Songs Of Innocence" (released September 9, 2014). It is also an album that fully informs not only the previous album but the entirety of their discography, making echoes to the young men they were and how those ideals of their collective pasts have reverberated, strengthened and/or altered over time to this particular point, especially as thoughts of mortality are more prevalent than they were back during their debut album "Boy" (released October 20, 1980).
Nine producers. A protracted recording period. A guest appearance by none other than Kendrick Lamar. The entire proceedings should be a complete mess. But on the contrary, it is a beautifully composed, arranged, performed and sequenced work, filled end to end with songs that contain glistening melodies presented earnestly, passionately and by a band that still sounds like no one else other than themselves.
"HARMONY OF DIFFERENCE"
Released September 29, 2017
-Sometimes you do not need words-part three...
After the audacious, dynamic three disc/three hour debut album that is more than appropriately entitled "The Epic" (released May 5, 2015), saxophonist/composer/bandleader/producer Kamasi Washington returns with a new EP release that possesses a duration that is only a fraction of his previous work but is no less complex and far reaching in its musicality and emotion.
"Harmony Of Difference" is a six-movement suite of songs lasting only a bit over 30 minutes and yet, the entire EP feels as full and as complete as an entire album. Featuring tracks which carry titles such as "Integrity," "Perspective," "Knowledge" and the 13 minute plus finale "Truth," Washington and his orchestral jazz collective of musicians and vocalists conjure up the sweep and scope of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane while extending and expanding upon the idiosyncratic musical universe that Kamasi Washington is gradually bringing into the world.
Like "The Epic," this is music that is indeed extremely complex and sophisticated but surprisingly not arcane or unapproachable. In fact, "Harmony Of Difference," just may be one of the most empathetic releases of 2017.
"IS THIS THE LIFE WE REALLY WANT?"
Released June 2, 2017
-From one of rock and roll's most unrepentant humanists, a songwriter whose lyricists pen contains the most poisonous venom for those who aligns themselves with money an d power at the expense of humanity itself, former Pink Floyd band member Roger Waters returns to the rock album format after a 25 year absence with his new release, the title of which asks the very question I would not be surprised that we are all asking of ourselves these days.
In years past, my feeling towards Roger Waters has remained as followed once he departed Pink Floyd: his staggering lyrics are absolutely brilliant yet his music was tremendously lacking, as if he could not have been bothered to write more than one or two themes, a combination which made for more than ponderous listening. With "Is This The Life We Really Want?," Waters has teamed up with producer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich, who streamlined the complexity of Waters' latest conceptual narrative to focus more sharply upon the songs themselves, which are indeed Waters' most melodic set of song since his days with Pink Floyd. In fact, this album represents the 72 year old rock and roll veteran operating in peak form as the album represents his best solo work by a mile while also serving as one of the best extensions from the Pink Floyd universe to date.
In many ways, Waters' album was the very one I was most anxious to hear in this first year of President Trump and for my sensibilities, it more than exceeded my needs and expectations. From the album cover whose redacted imagery echoes the cover artwork of Pink Floyd's The Wall" (released November 30, 1979), I felt that the blacked out sections essentially served as societal bricks within the 21st century, a landscape where the increasingly and politically commonplace tactic of erasing words, ideas, concepts and therefore, people, that prove to be "threatening," ultimately creating a horrific post-truth universe.
With that comes Waters' patented stupendously recorded and hallucinogenic soundscapes armed with the brutal humanism of his lyrics that suffers no fools and howls like a mad wolf at an unforgiving world filled with mounting levels of greed, avarice, ruthlessness, an utter disregard for the world which we all share and perhaps mostly, the flatulent stupidity of world leaders willing to make humanity itself expendable.
"Picture a leader with no fucking brains," Waters snarls as the final three words of that phrase echo into oblivion. Unfortunately, we don't need to picture it. We are here. Thankfully, so is Roger Waters to help us see this through.
"A KIND REVOLUTION"
Released May 12, 2017
-Another musical legend released an enormously vital, vibrant, vivacious work in 2017 and it came from journeyman Paul Weller, he of The Jam and The Style Council. For "A Kind Revolution," his thirteenth solo album, Weller again gleefully mixes genres of rock, pop, post-punk, rock, funk, R&B, and 21st century psychedelia yet what effortlessly bridges the variety of styles so cleanly and is the superb expressiveness contained in the grit and soul of his extraordinary voice.
Out of all of the songs that I have heard this year, I would be hard pressed to find another sung moment than the one heard in Weller's "Long, Long Road," during which he finds the Gospel in hsi singing, unearthing the spirit of Marvin Gaye to me when he sings the passage, "And I know it's a long long road that we walk together but as one/There's no longer two oh, me and you/When the road gets rough, we gotta pull together," and then concludes it with a soaring "wooo-oooo-ooooh!" I am getting chills just writing about this!!
I really wish to believe that we have long reached the time when music listeners can find much to be appreciated in not only all kinds of genres but in all ages of performers no matter in which decade they exist in. All that matters is that the artist in question is still finding inspiration to create new works at their absolute best and Paul Weller has again shown beautifully that he is not in any fear of growing remotely uninspired.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Released April 14, 2017
-Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
From the title, to the stark cover image, to the music contained therein, Kendrick Lamar's downright brilliantly titled "Damn." is the work of a furiously, ferociously gifted artist in a state of extreme stress, palpable spiritual turmoil, and unquestionable anxiety in a world that seemingly wants everything from him except the messages of what he has to offer. At least, that is what is feels like in the album's opening when Lamar is shot dead as he selflessly assists a blind woman searching for...well, what?
This is the world of "Damn.," a world where the spiritual decay is paramount to multi-level, multi-faceted degrees from entrenched institutionalized racism against African-Americans to the labyrinthine frictions and fatalities within the Black community that work to hold ourselves backwards instead of pushing ourselves even further forwards, to Lamar's own increased sense of purpose and paranoia which has arrived with greater fame, greater knowledge, and a greater sense of self via a larger worldview yet all of which is pungently tinged with a menacing Survivor's Guilt and fear that what he has learned and can use to enlighten and elevate will all fall on deaf ears.
This album showcases the mighty King Kunta still operating at the fullest of his powers as his work as a rapper and lyricist remains untouchable in their agility, dexterity and Shakespearian heft, depth and complexity--the album's final three selections of "FEAR," "GOD" and the absolute masterpiece of coincidence or fate narrative that is "DUCKWORTH" are MASTER CLASSES in storytelling, perspectives, psychology and therefore, human empathy. Now knowing that Lamar designed his album to be experienced in front or reverse order, essentially creating a double album in one single disc where the full narrative is able to house different meanings, is a testament to his supreme conceptual powers, to which he again proves that he is never to be underestimated...that is if he ever has been!
Musically, Lamar has drastically altered his sound from the free jazz theatrics of his staggering previous effort "To Pimp A Butterfly" (released March 15, 2015), to embrace a more classic boom-bap sound in force but one that is woozy in atmospherics, fully suggesting the societal haze and political daze we are all experiencing at this point in time, as we evaluate and re-evaluate our surroundings and ourselves in order to determine just how we can move forwards.
And this is only, album #4!
So, there you have it. My personal favorite albums of 2017, works to embrace for the year and forever more.