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Monday, December 18, 2017

One Alt-Weekly Schmuck's Top 10 New Albums of the Year

Posted By on Mon, Dec 18, 2017 at 1:40 PM

To borrow some perspective from Uproxx's Steven Hyden (one of my favorite music writers), the whole idea of "top 10" lists at the end of the year is sort of an intellectual non-starter. "Ranking albums is dumb," he writes, "but it’s kind of fun ... because it’s really about discovering an album or two (or possibly more!) that you might not have known about otherwise."

I might have used the phrase "favorite 10 albums of the year," but, nonetheless, here are the 10 new albums of 2017 that left an impression on me — albums to which I've returned and albums from which I've drawn creative inspiration in one sense or another. At the very least, them's some good listening for your holidays. (And a merry Chex Mix to you all.)

I wouldn't say there's a massive qualitative difference among these 10, to me personally. I could easily rearrange the top four, and I could probably shift the other six in various directions depending on mood or whatever.

To all who clicked the link, I hope you find what you're looking for.



Also, as a housekeeping note, I'll be moving from the No. 1 slot to the No. 10 slot, which sort of differs from most other "top 10" lists, I guess.

And so:

1. The Barr Brothers - Queens of the Breakers

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From the initial heartbeat percussion of "Defibrillation," the Montreal-based Barr Brothers' third album beckons the listener into a teeming world of steam and flora. There is a mysticism at work here, helped along by the band's natural ingredients: harpist Sarah Page's delicate touch, pianist Andres Vial's barometric manipulation, drummer Andrew Barr's eight-armed massages and guitarist Brad Barr's vibration of life. This is a band that does not toy with its listeners; there are no gimmicks here. The Barr Brothers (nee The Slip) are on that same rarefied plane that, e.g., fellow traveler Jeff Tweedy has cultivated for years. They write and perform with an eye toward something greater than the sum of its parts. On one turn, they're slipping proto-electronica beats through acoustic melodies on "Kompromat," while elsewhere they're tenderly embracing the painfully sweet twists of serendipity in love in "Song That I Heard." Taken as a whole, this album captures a mural of freewheeling emotions and moods that seem to be in short supply sometimes: compassion, calming freedom, tender resolve. They don't tour the States terribly often, but we made the trek to see these guys in Pittsburgh earlier this month. They were awe-inspiring onstage.

2. Alfa Mist - Antiphon

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This was an early 2017 find for me, and it held the No. 1 slot until Queens came out. It's a beneficiary of YouTube's (fairly marvelous) "up next" algorithm, and it seems like many other users landed on Alfa Mist's album the same way I did: through happenstance. Here, on Antiphon, Alfa Mist's composer skills chill at the forefront of caffeinated beats, smoky sax solos, face-melting lead guitar work and a deft hand with a spectrum of samples. Take the 10-minute "Errors," which kicks the mood from angular keys to after-hours lounge vibes before slumping into an orchestral swirl of sound. This is Saturday morning music, the sort of thing that complements well the heat of a French press, the shuffling of a thinning Metro section and the gentle nuzzlings of a labrador retriever. (It also pairs neatly with revolution, one could surmise, which will no doubt come in handy in this new year.) It's a masterfully sequenced album.

3. Craig Finn - We All Want the Same Things

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I can't get "Ninety Bucks" out of my head, and that's not a bad thing at all. It's an infectious Costello-laced tune, and it's only one slice of the We All Want the Same Things pie, each meant to be folded over on itself and crushed via headphones while tripping down Manhattan Ave. Elsewhere on this fuzz-folk gem, you'll find raucous rock like "Rescue Blues" and contemplative spoken-word like "God in Chicago." Finn covers the gamut here, and you'll be a changed person by the end of side two. Even the cover art evinces a common struggle that, surely, we're all feeling these days. There's a malaise in America, and only a blind fool isn't feeling crestfallen as 2017 draws to a close. Craig Finn will bum you a smoke, and, for a few minutes, you'll feel a clarity, a buzz that serves as the only defense against a crumbling culture.

4. Valerie June - The Order of Time

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Something that I find evident in this list is how different artists play with time. On The Order of Time, Valerie June does that to startling effect. Her Tennessee congregation vocals invite southern strings to take center stage here and there, while leaning into verses that now and then remind the listener that time is a flat circle. The past is always present, because surely it's never done with who we are and who we're becoming. And yet the future looms like a nimbus over the hills down the way. It helps that June is a dynamite singer who can take low-key sojourns into the realm of nostalgia and aching. Elsewhere, of course, she'll turn a song like "Shakedown" into a saloon stomp worthy to even the most jaded dancers.

5. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice

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Anyone who's gotten into the habit of making top-10 lists in the past few years is well acquainted with the likes of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile. They've grown into fringey indie institutions, and the scene erupted in mostly joy when the two announced a collaboration. Each colors with a different shade of slacker troubadour, borrowing in equal parts from Bob Dylan and Steven Malkmus and whatever windswept poetry might be floating down the street at twilit hours. Album opener "Over Everything" captures the duo almost too perfectly, with Barnett and Vile trading lines over dreamy reverb melody and a simplified drum beat. Their lyrical flair flashes beautifully throughout the collection, dancing between the mundane and the heavy in tunes like "Continental Breakfast."

6. Spoon - Hot Thoughts

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Better music writers than I have already made the point: Spoon remains one of the most consistent bands on the scene these days. From the underrated 1997 EP Soft Effects to this latest effort, Spoon just has an energy that can't seem to quit. The title track is a claustrophobic dance that syncs neatly with 2017's unsettling political landscape. Some strange new sound creeps behind every corner. Later on the album, the nearly industrial bummer "I Ain't the One" bleeds into the jagged "Tear It Down" and the sometimes-Krautrocky "Shotgun." Spoon covers a lot of territory on this one, and yet they seem to return again and again to their Spooniest qualities: brash vocal dynamics alongside edgy and catchy guitar riffs.

7. Slowdive - Slowdive

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This is easily the best "comeback" of the year, with these UK shoegaze masters returning to the "new releases" rack for the first time in more than two decades. It's a powerful album, almost undeserving of the "comeback" title's baggage. Swirling guitars turn pieces like "Star Roving" into more than what might otherwise be a smoky indie rock throwaway. The band worked quietly, they've said, slowly returning to themselves in a way that any one of us might reunite with identities from our pasts. A re-familiarization process is heard throughout this album, like in the dynamics of "No Longer Making Time" or in the intricate layering work behind "Don't Know Why."

8. Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Barefoot in the Head

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The only returning band from my 2016 list, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is such a cool outfit. They're Beachland favorites, and once again they dazzle their crowd with the stuff on Barefoot in the Head. Doesn't matter if it's summer or winter — this album hits all the right notes. You've got the jive talk of "Hark, the Herald Hermit Speaks" and the trippy mountaintop gaze of "Dog Eat Sun." Robinson, in only a few short years with this group, has shown how far he can take an artistic vision that differs wholly from the band that made him famous (The Black Crowes). "I’m just saying there’s a difference in experience and a difference in what we’re trying to get out of it," he told me last year, referring to the surface-level stuff in rock music these days and the work that goes into each CRB show.

9. The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding

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I think you'll see this atop many a "top-1o" piece this month. Pretty much from Wagonwheel Blues onward, The War on Drugs' Adam Granduciel has worked tirelessly to execute a pitch-perfect representation of what's in his head. With A Deeper Understanding, it sounds like he's getting pretty darned close to what he wants to do with his creative work. This is upper-echelon rock, and no one would be faulted for tossing it handily into the No. 1 slot for the year. It's distinct from the rest of 2017's business, I think, if only because Granduciel is playing by his own rules. He combines drum-machine 80s throwback beats with arena-rock guitars and a penchant for deep introspection in his lyrics. The guy is a builder, and, in this digital age of ours, we'd do well to look out for those of us with a goal and a plan. Light a cigarette and lean back into this one.

10. Gun Outfit - Out of Range

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I'll admit it: I would have preferred to make just a top-nine list here. A number of albums cycled in and out of this final position, and it took me a while to solidify my nice round number with Gun Outfit's easy-going frontier rock. Out of Range is an interesting album that recalls the western U.S. in more ways than just the Devil's Tower cover art. "Ontological Intercourse" (is a great name for a song and) is a terrific opener, replete with loping vocals and guitars that sometimes remain at odds with where each other's melodies are heading. And check out the duality of singers Dylan Sharp and Carrie Keith trading musings in "Landscape Painter," because that's a really pleasant ditty that I'll use to round out this piece. If anything, perhaps, I'm seeking something distant and wide-open and promising as I reach for this album. I'm looking for something, and maybe you are too.

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