By Randy Goldner
I’m Randy and no weekend is complete for me without serious time perusing the stacks at Bart’s Record Shop. So I’m excited to introduce my new monthly column, wherein I’ll help you find the best new (and old) music and enhance your shopping experience at Bart’s. In 40+ years I’ve progressed from 45s to 33s to cassettes to CDs, with a move back to vinyl last year thanks to the Pro-Ject Turntable I purchased at the store. It’s been a thrill bringing my old albums out of retirement and expanding my vinyl collection (even when re-purchasing an album I sold to Bart’s back on West Pearl). For sound, presentation and quality of experience, there really is no substitute for vinyl; no surprise it’s the fastest growing segment of the music industry.
Although we’re only halfway through 2017, there have been an amazing number of great albums released this year. I had to struggle to come up with five releases I truly loved in 2016, but 2017 has presented no such obstacles. Here then are my Top Five releases of 2017 as of this writing, all available on 180 gram vinyl at Bart’s (in alpha order):
Father John Misty—Pure Comedy
Truly an album for our times, Father John Misty is nothing if not provocative. Pure Comedy was crafted during the 2016 U.S. election season, and it shows. Call him clairvoyant, but Pure Comedy reads like a road map for navigating the end of the world. Whether he’s singing about being desensitized by VR, surviving the collapse of civilized society or abandoning L.A. at sunrise on New Year’s Day, Misty (nee Josh Tillman) wraps his words around Harry Nilsson-esque pop melodies and one of music’s most powerful baritones. Love him or hate him—it’s hard to be neutral—Pure Comedy is the best thing Tillman’s ever done, no small feat considering the strength of his last two records.
Most people first discovered Feist (aka former Broken Social Scene member Leslie Feist) when Apple used “1234” in a commercial, and she has been running from fame ever since. Pleasure is even less commercial than Metals, its stunning 6 year-old predecessor. With a stripped down approach that barely allows for percussion on most tracks, Feist sings about love, loss and the passage of time with passion and subtlety. The album rocks hard in brief spurts, but largely sticks to simple melodies and a sparseness that put the focus sharply on the lyrics. Listen for Pulp leader Jarvis Cocker’s turn on “Century,” one of the album’s best cuts, and for a reprise of the title track emanating from a passing car at the end of “Any Party.”
Aimee Mann—Mental Illness
Calling her album Mental Illness may be tongue-in-cheek and a nod to those who would describe her as overly depressing, but Mann has crafted her best release since 2005’s The Forgotten Arm. Her new music eschews her electric-guitar-based tendencies in favor of more delicate, soft ballads, albeit with the same hyper-literate lyrics that are her trademark. Here you’ll find songs about lonely hotel rooms (“Goose Snow Cone”), being stood-up at the altar (“You Never Loved Me”) and friends who steal (“Lies of Summer”), all rendered with delicacy, intelligence and Mann’s distinctive, nasal voice. If you’ve enjoyed Mann in the past, you’ll love Mental Illness; if you haven’t, you’re missing out on one of America’s greatest songwriters, the closest lyricist we have to Elvis Costello.
Nine albums in, Spoon defies expectations and shows marked improvement. Maybe it’s because I visited Japan this year, but Hot Thoughts speaks to me personally, whether Britt Daniel is singing about someone trying to pick up his girlfriend in Shibuya or visiting an Owl Café (a common sight in Tokyo). Hot Thoughts rocks hard with an overabundance of sticky melodies that you’ll find impossible to dislodge from your frontal lobe. The title track and “Can I Sit Next To You” may be getting all the airplay, but “Do I Have To Talk You Into It” is probably the best rock song by anyone so far this year, and “Pink Up” sounds like the soundtrack to a great, to-be-filmed movie. Last time I was at Bart’s, they still had the Hot Thoughts RSD release with cover of Elvis Presley’s “Love Letters” on the flip side.
The xx–I See You
London’s The xx have always been known for their dour British pop. Perhaps no other group is better at creating pop for wannabe goths that like their music a little more mainstream. With their 3rd release, The xx have taken a massive step forward and created what is far and away the best pop album of the year. Vocalist/guitarist Romy Croft and vocalist/bassist Oliver Sim each wield captivating voices that blend seamlessly, perfect for songs that share a common theme of romance. Whether celebrating new love (“Dangerous,” “Lips”) or lamenting dying embers (“Say Something Loving,” “Performance”), The xx wrap their beautiful voices around the catchiest melodies you’re likely to hear, with surprisingly resonant words. I See You sets the bar for pure pop in 2017 at a level few are likely to approach.
Honorable Mentions: Dear Evan Hansen Original Cast Recording; Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator; Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway; Ryan Adams – The Prisoner