In my first post for this blog earlier this year, I highlighted my 5 favorite albums from the first half of 2017, including releases from Father John Misty, Feist, Aimee Mann, Spoon and The xx. Here are my 5 favorites from the second half of 2017:
Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile — Lotta Sea Lice
What happens when Australia’s best indie rocker joins forces with Philly’s king of slacker rock? Surprisingly, one of the year’s best records. Lotta Sea Lice sprang from the intercontinental mutual admiration society between Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, and the results make for a highly infectious sound. If you’re not familiar with Vile, imagine a human version of Goofy, with informal, talky vocals and the shaggy dog looks. The pair’s vocals are conversational but captivating, while the multilayered guitar interplay is musical nirvana (think Neil Young meets Pavement). Whether it’s a sublime melody set to lyrics about overcoming writer’s block (“Let it Go”) or a Vile cover of one of Barnett’s grungier numbers (“Outta the Woodwork”), Lotta Sea Lice is both endearing and enthralling. Hopefully, it will turn a lot of people on to their individual talents; it certainly sets a very high bar for their future solo work.
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
LCD Soundsystem retired in grand fashion in 2011 with a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden. In 2016 they joined the sizable legion of groups that have unretired and played festivals all over the world, albeit with no new material. And while coming out of retirement might appear to be a cynical attempt at milking money from nostalgic fans–like the Kiss and Who, whose Farewell Tours are on their second decades–there is no doubt that the world is a better place with LCD Soundsystem active. American Dream is not as groundbreaking as This is Happening or Sound of Silver, the two albums that preceded it, but it still contains a lot of great new music and effectively builds on their catalog. “Oh baby,” “call the police,” “tonite” and “I used to” are as good as anything bandleader James Murphy has ever written, and American Dream proves that half of a great LCD Soundsystem record is still better than 99% of everything else (and enough to earn Album of the Year status from MOJO magazine).
The National – Sleep Well Beast
It’s always a pleasant surprise when an already-established band makes the best music of its career many years after their debut. Such was the case in the first half of 2017 with Spoon’s Hot Thoughts, and such is the case with The National’s seventh and latest release. Oh sure, there’s plenty of the dark, moody rock that pervaded their prior LPs, but Sleep Well Beast takes the band to the next level by mixing in more accessible, rocking melodies. “Day I Die” and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” are two of the best radio rock songs by anyone this year; the latter matches an irresistible groove with a dissonant, 5-note guitar theme to create a song that I haven’t been able to dislodge from my mind since the day I heard it. Whether it’s hard rockers like “Turtleneck” or brooding, simple ballads like the opening “Nobody Else Will Be There,” Sleep Well Beast is haunting in all the right ways.
St.Vincent — Masseduction
St. Vincent (nee Annie Clark) has usually been described as a female hybrid of shape-shifters David Bowie and David Byrne (whom she’s toured with), but her latest, fifth album is more reminiscent of early Elvis Costello in the way it effortlessly moves between genres. Clark has described her new music as based on an archetype of “dominatrix at the mental institution.” It doubles as a modern-day travelogue, with odes to New York and Los Angeles for good measure. Musically, Masseduction includes everything from pure pop (“Pills”) to electronica (“Sugarboy”) to ballads and more. Producer Jack Antonoff of fun and Bleachers fame, who also produced this year’s widely-praised Lorde album, delivers a more commercial sound. Anything that helps Clark reach a wider audience has got to be a good thing.
Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
Mavis Staples’ third album in the last seven years produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is the best of the trio, even though “You Are Not Alone,” from their first collaboration, is still my favorite Tweedy composition. Unlike its predecessors, If All I Was Was Black is written entirely by Tweedy (with an assist on three songs from Mavis herself). Like Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy earlier this year, the album speaks to the current political and social climate, building on Staples’ legacy of fighting for social progress. Whether calling out police brutality (“Little Bit”), calling for action (“No Time for Crying”) or quoting Michelle Obama (“We Go High”), Mavis manages to create a positive vibe without pulling any punches. Tweedy also dials up the funk considerably, making this a toe-tapper and a thought-provoker. Mavis Staples is a national treasure, and If All I Was Was Black finds her at the top of her game.
One More Thing: Best Album of Late 2016
Jim James – Eternally Even
Sometimes good albums released late in the year miss the cut because of timing. With that in mind, it’s worth spotlighting Jim James’ Eternally Even, which came out last November and is easily one of my most played records of 2017. The element of surprise might have something to do with it: unlike the revamped–for-the-21st-century classic rock that My Morning Jacket (the band James leads) produces with such alacrity, Eternally Even is an R&B album. With a little psychedelia thrown in for good measure, the result is significantly better than My Morning Jacket’s last release, 2015’s The Waterfall. With inspiring and insightful lyrics, callbacks to vintage ‘70s soul, and a shifting swirl of rhythms that literally collapses and rebuilds at two separate points (during “Here in Spirit” and “In The Moment”), here is a truly unique record that grabbed me the first time I heard it and still reveals new things many listens later.