It's that time of year where I list my favorite albums I've purchased in the last 12 months, mostly ranked by how often I've listened to them with very little other objective concerns. Though this year I bought a few objectively good albums, and that did complicate the listings. Anyway, my most played record this year isn't one I bought anyway: My good friends Jonathan Hape, Nick Baker, and Andy Foster perform together as Room and Board. They released a new EP this year and were kind enough to give me a copy. Check it out here.
Elsewise, on with the list.
10. Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister's Planetarium (2017)
I really love Sufjan. I do. Since I started making these yearly lists his new releases have been at or close to the top as they come out. Here he works with some amazing collaborators all building on compositions by Nico Muhly, which makes it even more bizarre that the album mostly feels like rehashes of Stevens' earlier work. While the title itself suggests a weird expansion and dilution of Stevens's aborted 50 states project, the songs mostly sound like Age of Adz b-sides, most notably Jupiter, which sounds so close to Vesuvius to my ear that I just get the earlier track stuck in my head when I hear the newer one. And at 17 tracks the album wears thin long before it's over. Sufjan, I still love you, but I don't love this.
9. Lo Tom's s/t (2017)
It's 2017 and 90's fringe Christian acts Pedro the Lion and Starflyer 59 finally come together to form the supergroup they probably could have been 20 years ago. As two bands it was ok for me to be into in high school as far as my parents were concerned (well, so long as they didn't actually listen to Control), I've been a long time fan of both groups, and they all musically mesh quite well. Lyrically, though, Dave Bazan isn't quite as hard hitting as he has been in the past. Bad Luck Charm is like a single song version of Control, which couldn't possibly encompass everything that album had to say. Likewise some of the other songs feel more clever than smart. Still, it's well crafted guitar rock that doesn't feel like a rehash of either of the bands that make up the supergroup.
8. Spoon's Hot Thoughts (2017)
It feels kinda of like a sin to list a new Spoon album this far up the list, and Pat may never talk to me again for not putting it closer to number one, but Hot Thoughts just didn't hit me as hard as any Spoon before. Maybe it was just where I was as a person, but their last release They Want My Soul was immediately my most played album when it came out, and is still up on that list. Meanwhile, the perfectly good but not great Hot Thoughts has yet to strike me as something I need to listen to. Previous Spoon was addictive, this just isn't. I listen to each of the ten albums on this list just before ordering them and writing the reviews, and even this morning it was hard to focus on all but a couple of songs.
7. Galaxie 500's Today (1988/2009)
Awhile back I had The Aquabats' song Waterslides stuck in my head and posted the lyrics "I'll stick around to be your hero, your tugboat captain" on Facebook, to which someone responded "I love Galaxie 500". Obviously, that someone was confused, but they turned me on to this classic jangle pop band, leading ultimately to me buying the three albums they released between 1988 and 1991 when they broke up. The final song of their first album, Tugboat, was my first introduction to them by that confused Facebook friend, and is still my favorite, but all three albums are great.
6. The National's Sleep Well Beast (2017)
From here it gets very hard to rank, because I love each of the coming albums so much. Evident by Lo Tom, DAMN, Terrible Freedom, and others, 2017 was a year for songs about endurance more than hope. But sometimes endurance is all we need for hope to grow. Sleep Well Beast is a little sloppier than previous The National records, a little more chaotic, and in that a little more organic. My chief complaint about Trouble Will Find Me was that it just sounded too much like High Violet, and Sleep Well Beast rectifies that, feeling familiar without feeling repetitive. Though somewhat grittier tracks like Turtleneck push beyond anything I would expect from them.
5. Joanna Newson's The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
It took me a very long time to get over the shrillness of Newson's voice. Lots of people have played me her music over the years to indifference from me. But I bought her debut on a whim and found a lyrically engaging album full of spriteful charm. And her voice grew on me pretty dang quickly to boot.
4. The Mountain Goats' Goths (2017)
Every tMG album is a slightly different take on the concept of a concept album. 2009's The Light of the World to Come took its song titles and concepts from individual verses of the Christian Scriptures. 2015's Beat the Champ are stories from the world of professional wrestling. This year we have Goths, inspired by an adolescence listening to chiefly British synth pop and gothic rock, like Bauhaus or Siouxsie and the Banshees, though the album's music is seemingly much more inspired by Nick Cave or New Order. Still the mood is invoked, and Darnielle's clever lyricism invokes the bands he's feeling inspired by in smart ways.
3. TW Walsh's Terrible Freedom (2017)
I know Walsh from his work with Pedro the Lion (and as such, he's also featured above as a member of Lo Tom), but I wasn't familiar with his solo work. Thankfully, my friend Jason Anderson (who himself makes pretty dang good music with his wife) is a big fan, and his interactions with Walsh on Twitter turned me on to Terrible Freedom.
While lyrically Terrible Freedom circles around fear and disillusionment at modern societies increase dependence on technology -- a complaint I have some issue with -- the exploration of anxiety lands on resolve, if not hope:
Open wide to the dread that's creeping.
Never let your fear turn you wild.
Come to terms with a terrible freedom.
Whatever comes, just let it arrive
2. Kendrick Lamar's DAMN (2017)
Last year I read Drew Hart's book The Trouble I've Seen and early on he challenges readers to inventory their book collections and see just how diverse they may be. My library, like that of many middle class white people, is predominantly made up of the voices of white men.
The same goes for my music collection, something I've noticed in the last few years and tried to rectify (to varying degrees, as you can see if you've read the above list). People I know who are into hip hop are often surprised that I like Kendrick or Chance the Rapper -- and I can't blame them, look at me -- but it's hard to ignore objectively good music.
Well, then again, it's not hard is it? We do it all that time. It takes empathy to get into the art created by someone whose life is -- or is perceived to be -- so different from your own. But on the flip side, seeking out the art of people different to you is a great way to start growing empathy.
Of course I don't need to grow so much in order to relate to Lamar's lyrics of spiritual fear. I am very interested in artists exploring Christian faith outside of the confines of the Christian Music Industry, and the sense of urgency in Lamar's lyrics is impossible to ignore.
1. Beyonce's Lemonade (2016)
So Lemonade is inarguably the best album to come out in 2016, and I was very happy to see it released on vinyl late in 2017. Also, in a time when so many artists fail to include a digital download with their vinyl packages, Beyonce in her infinite goodness not only provided a download code for the album, but one for the accompanying video album.
The break up album for a relationship that didn't actually end, Lemonade is full of songs of hurt and healing, of standing up and demanding respect. Even a white dude can find that inspiring.