Music/Popular Culture

The Year in Music: @Doc’s top albums of 2017

best-albums-of-2017

As always, it was a great year for music – for those willing to put in a little effort, anyway.

[UPDATED 1/12/18]

Radio and the music industry have long since abandoned any pretense of developing or presenting quality tuneage, so if you sit passively and wait for it to come to you then you’re likely going to conclude that music is deader than Elvis’s willy.

The good news, of course, is that all the technology has made possible a serious DIY golden age of independent music. Granted, without mass exposure or institutional support of some sort it can be hard for even the brightest and best to make a living at it. But the point is I found all kinds of great stuff to listen to this year and I’d like to share it with you.

I’ll also note in advance that I made a decision a few months ago to really explore what I’m calling the “3rd Millennium Sound.” There’s a Facebook group you can join and and a bitchin’ Spotify playlist you can listen to free and everything, and the description reads thusly:

3MS is dedicated to the sharing and discussion of new music of the 2000’s. The group revolves around specific genres like Electro-Pop, Darkwave, Industrial, contemporary Trip-Hop, Shoegaze/Dreampop, BritPop and more. This description isn’t intended to be limiting – 3MS is about discovery. (That said, thou shalt not share Folk here.)

My 2017 list leans that way, since those are the genres on which I was focused. An artifact of the process, though, is that’s this review is dominated by acts more concerned with resurrecting and updating older sounds (especially the range of styles we heard in the 1980s) than they are with innovating new ones. C’est la vie.

At the same time we had newer acts exploring our musical history, we also had some of that history swinging around to remind us it isn’t dead yet. There was an odd, but wonderful, resurgence of DreamPop and Shoegazer as some of our heroes from ’90s got back together, and maybe we have a sustainable trend working after last year’s Lush reunion. Somebody get Rob Dickinson on the horn…

So here, in sorta semi-alphabetical order, are some things I liked this year. The link to my 2017 collection is at the end of this post, and it contains all these full albums (except Nox Arcana, which is noted separately) plus a few more you might like.

Adam Marsland – Bulé

I didn’t include this in the original posting because, frankly, I was still grappling with it. Not because there’s any question of its excellence, but because of some very personal issues with me. I’ve been searching for a path through to what Joseph Campbell called an “authentic life” for some time, and the quest has intensified in the last couple of years. To know you aren’t where you should be, to know that place exists, but not to be able to find the way … it’s a hard way to live.

Adam Marsland has long been one of my favorite LA Power Pop undergrounders, and it seems he’s been exploring a bit, as well. Thing is, he’s a lot further along than I am. He’s been spending more and more time abroad of late, and seems to have discovered the gateway to his spiritual center in Bali. Bulé is a chronicle of that journey, I suppose, and for those who know Adam’s catalog (in all his incarnations), understand: this is different. It’s more elemental, it embraces the sounds of the culture where it was born, and it feels, from a certain weary distance, like the music at the end of the road.

I didn’t write about Bulé sooner because I didn’t know what to say, and I suppose I still don’t. But it’s marvelous, even by Marsland’s standards.

The Birthday Massacre – Under Your Spell

If there’s a complaint to be made about TBM, it’s that they seem content to stick to a core sound. Maybe, but if they’re happy to just do what they do, it’s also true that what they do is fantastic and they do it very, very well. Dark, hard, shimmery and melodic – in so many ways they encapsulate everything I love in music these days.

The Darling Buds – Evergreen

Remember The Darling Buds? Yeah, didn’t see this coming. Makes me want more, you know?

Drab Majesty – The Demonstration

One of my top 3rd Millennium Sound finds of the year. Swirly, engaging, post-Punk influenced dreaminess.

DREAMCAR – s/t

One of the absolute hookiest finds of the year. Features Davey Havok (AFI, Blaqk Audio) and the three surviving members of No Doubt cultivating a sound that won’t remind you of any of their other projects.

Ella Atlas – The Road to Now

Our old friend Stephen Masucci (The Lost Patrol, The Lovely Intangibles) is back, this time collaborating with singer Tarrah Maria, whom NY Music Daily calls “enigmatic, allusively torchy…” Fans of TLP and TLI will absolutely love the bewitching lushness of TRtN, which intimates a sensual alternate noir past where the entire world played out on the big golden screen.

Fastball – Step Into Light

I remember Fastball from way back but had lost touch, so this one surprised me. I’m still considering it – came to it late in the year – but it gets better with each spin.

Future Islands – The Far Field

Allmusic’s Tim Sendra has this to say:

The band took three years before releasing its next album, The Far Field, and while it lacks the immediacy and shock of Singles, it feels like the work of a band looking to take another giant leap forward.

I think I agree. Singles took the world by storm, and TFF isn’t Singles. It’s pretty damned wonderful, though, and one hopes Sendra has the band pegged. The 2017 release delivers a lot and promises a good deal more.

Goldfrapp – Silver Eye

Once upon a time Goldfrapp mastered the art of ice cold sexy electropop. Then they wandered off in search of a more organic sound. I respected the move, but I won’t lie – I didn’t care for the result at all. This year, though, Alison G and Will Gregory found their way home, sorta.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires

I barely know what to say anymore. Isbell has been perhaps the most talented artist alive for several years now, constantly willing to explore both the demon-infested blackness of his own soul and our hate-riven political culture with equal measures of honesty and hope. The latter is no mean feat, it has to be said. Five stars out of five. At least.

Johnny Clegg – King of Time

Johnny is battling cancer and doesn’t have much time left. In King of Time he holds his last conversation with his friends, his family and the world at large. It’s safe to say the founder and leader of Juluka and Savuka, two of the greatest bands in African history, is putting the wraps on a legacy that will justly regard him as one of the bravest, most important artists in the history of popular music. It’s no exaggeration to say he has been the equal of other luminaries we’ve lost recently – Bowie, Prince, Petty … and the world will soon be a poorer place for his passing.

London Grammar – Truth is a Beautiful Thing

The group’s 2017 release feels at once familiar and wholly different compared with 2014’s spectacular debut, If You Wait. On the one hand, both are powered by strong songwriting, restrained arrangements and the breathtaking depth and nuance of Hannah Reid’s hypnotic alto. On the other, this effort seems more even, perhaps at the cost of the soaring high spots of IYW. Maybe the word I’m after is “meditative.” And while we remember moments like “Hey Now” from the last outing, this time around perhaps the unit of measurement is the entire album.

Principe Valente – Oceans

It has been observed that musically, the Swedes are great imitators (if not necessarily known for their innovation). Perhaps that’s fair, perhaps not, but it’s certain that Principe Valente has aggregated the sounds of Post-Punk and Goth into an especially alluring breed of DarkPop that echoes everything from Bauhaus (and later solo Peter Murphy) to Joy Division (and later New Order).

Ride – Weather Diaries

Wow – a Ride reunion. This is their first new work in a long time, and while a lot of bands that get back together have very little new to say, note the very current political themes here (I mean, Brexit? Cool.). Musically, of course, it’s very much the Ride you remember from the ’90s – although, since they and their DreamPop and Shoegazer fellow-travelers from back in the day exerted such a lasting influence, this effort doesn’t feel even remotely derivative.

Slowdive – s/t

While we’re on the subject of ’90s DreamPop/Shoegazer reunions, what about Slowdive, whose 1993 masterwork Souvlaki remains one of my favorite albums from the entire decade. I can’t tell you the new eponymous record is quite on that level, but neither is it a nostalgia tour. As Tim Sendra notes, a great deal of energy was spent incorporating ideas from the work the various members have been about since they last got together, and the result – as with Ride, noted above – feels very much like a step forward.

Monster Movie – Keep the Voices Distant

Kind of a busy year for 1990s DreamGazers, 2017 was. Monster Movie might remind you a bit of Slowdive, for instance. Which isn’t surprising, given that it’s a side project of guitarist Christian Savill (and features the band’s bassist, Nick Chaplin). If you like early Slowdive, you’re going to appreciate the ways in which KtVD remains faithful to that project’s Shoegazer roots.

Rose Hill Drive –  Mania

There’s nothing especially complicated about Boulder’s RHD. Three guys, a minimum of studio hijinks, ripping the house down to the studs. You know, the way god intended.

Sally Dige – Hard to Please

very recent discovery. As in, a couple days ago. But damn, talk about your first impressions. Dige seems to be part musician and part multimedia artist (something I think will be clearer once you’ve watched the video below). HtP is persistently danceable and a tad ominous, as though there’s something both beautiful and dangerous lurking around the corner with a sock of sand. I may be premature here – I’ve clearly not had time to give Dige the sort of deep consideration she deserves – but I’m putting her on the list anyway. She just reminds me too much of Grace Slick and Snake Rattle Rattle Snake and Meg Myers and Kate Bush and Ida Long and Esben and the Witch and some others not to.

U2 –  Songs of Experience

A few days ago I penned a piece arguing that U2, my favorite band of all time, had lost its relevance. I’m not going to say much more here because I’ve been doing some more reading and thinking, and I may have been unfair. I plan a post revisiting that article soon, and will say what I have to say on the subject then. Meanwhile…

Nox Arcana – Season of the Witch

I don’t talk or write about it a lot, but I have long loved the Dark Ambient genre. In fact, I go to sleep each night with Raison d’Etre’s Enthraled by the Wind of Loneliness (sic) playing. Nox Arcana is one of the best projects I have yet found, and 2017’s SotW is mesmerizing. Imagine if Edgar Allen Poe had been a Classical composer… [Stream on Spotify]

Give these artists a listen, and may 2018 be as wonderful as 2017 was. Musically, I mean.

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