The best things I listened to in 2017

With the tidy finish of December behind us, we’ve now surged into a new year… and with that, the ever popular lists of things that happened over the previous year (2017) are out in full force.  I felt like writing something again and this seemed like a natural opportunity. So here is my list of best albums I listened to in 2017. These are not necessarily 2k17 releases, but rather things I discovered, enjoyed immensely, and managed to keep up with my rigorous listening schedule.

#1.  Bjéar: Bjéar (self titled) 

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This Adelaide indie band was brought to my attention by a good friend. The early 2017 release of their self titled L.P. has been a consistent favourite of mine ever since. Highlights are Firefall and Hymn, but the album as a whole is fantastic.  Drawing musical influences from the fjords and the dark forests of Scandinavia, the album paints warm tones through a cold land, giving the listener a feeling of comforting nostalgia. Like holding a cup of warm tea near a fireplace after a long day exploring a snow bank, this record will give you warmth as you huddle up next to it.

 

#2 Violent Soho: Waco 

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I honestly considered not adding this, mostly because it was released in mid-2016 and I have been listening to it since then. But this album… man, this album captured something in me I thought I’d lost a long time ago: the teenage joy of listening to a good punk album. I got this cd hand-smuggled in luggage into Canada just so I could have it in my car’s CD player forever. There were days when I was done with my job and would take a longer route home just so I could listen to more of this album.  After finding this Brisbane-based punk-grunge operation I have become a die hard fan, and this follow up to their scene-defining release “Hungry Ghost” exceeded the expectations of the Australian music scene — they won album of the year last year at the ARIAs (the Australian Recording Industry Association Music Awards; yes it’s a terrible acronym).  If you enjoy the good parts of the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana mixed with a little turn of the early 00’s alternative punk, then Violent Soho are for you, and this album is an amazing place to start. These live versions of them playing also work: No Shade, or Lazy Eye (Silversun Pickups Cover).

Now that I think about it a bit more, this has been a really good year for music.

 

#3 Conor Oberst: Salutations

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It’s rare that something like a musical sequel comes along, and even rarer that I find myself enjoying it over its predecessor. In late 2016 Bright Eyes front man and America’s disgruntled poetic lyricist Conor Oberst released “Ruminations”, an exceedingly sparse and bare record. Listening to it felt like you were sitting with him in an old wooden church hall with a slightly out of tune piano. “Salutations”, on the other hand, feels very different. Oberst went back to the drawing board with his own songs, and brought in the influence of one of my favourite Americana bands, the Felice Brothers, putting out this jaunty but no less serious album. Particular favourites of mine are Overdue, and Barbary Coast. Instead of being in an empty wooden monolith, this album feels like you, Conor, and the five members of the Felice Brothers are in a big top tent together drinking just a little bit of moonshine and watching the summer sun slowly go down over the Appalachian mountains.

 

#4 Cage the Elephant: Unpeeled

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Cage the Elephant have always been somewhat of a musical enigma to me. This album is no exception. Surging onto the musical scene with their potentially-one-hit-wonder “No Rest for the Wicked”, Cage the Elephant did something very impressive. They managed to take that success and turn it into a musical endeavour worth looking into, and I’m very glad they did. The release of Unpeeled marks an interesting time for this band, as it is an assembly of their past albums, their big hits, and some of their favourite covers, stripped down and performed on mostly acoustic instruments with some strings along with it. It’s like a greatest hits album, but better; it’s like a live album, but better. I’m not sure how to classify it, really.  It’s more like the band decided to have some fun with their own material and happened to invite us along for the ride (and the ride happened to be professionally recorded and mastered).
This band seems to be hitting a great musical stride. Songs like Cold Cold Cold and their cover of Daft Punk’s Instant Crush are both brilliant takes, and give me the increasing suspicion that they are channeling some of that early The Rolling Stones mojo.

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The new Mick Jagger?

 

#5 Leif Vollebekk: Twin Solitude

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This third album from Leif Vollebekk is both haunting and beautiful. Comprised mostly of piano, drums, and strings, Leif meditates on Canadian life. If you are a individual who likes to feel emotional things, this album is for you. Elegy and Twin Solitude give this album enough star power on their own to make this record good, but I strongly suggest investing into this Canadian singer songwriter. He’s quickly scaling up my list of favourite Canadian artists alongside Dan Mangan and Aidan Knight.

 

#6 Father John Misty: Pure Comedy

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This third offering from Ex-Fleet Foxes drummer/singer songwriter Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, aka Farmer Jah Misery, is fascinating to me. His previous album, I Love you Honeybear, was one of my top albums of 2015.

The character and writing of Father John Misty’s albums is bleak. It’s poetry from someone who’s stared at themselves in the mirror just a little bit too long. Often times I find myself thinking that if we had a cultural poet laureate, Father John Misty would be it. This is the man who banned video cameras and phones at his shows, and gave us this weird, WEIRD self interview punctuated with scat singing, whiskey drinking, and just a little bit of tearful self analysis. Father John Misty cuts a cultural canyon in his album, wrapped in a swathe of loathing, joy, derision, and confident self-doubt. It’s hard to not be enticed by his own brand of Lennon-esque mockery of how the world works. Total Entertainment Forever is a prime example of this. Be warned: this album isn’t for the faint of heart or for those who want something to listen to without thinking about it. I’m not claiming to be either of those things myself, but when confronted by the words of these songs I can’t help but try and see if he’s right about things or not. His cover of I Believe I can Fly is also pretty dang good.

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Don’t you just feel super cultural right about now?

 

Drum roll please!
#7 Slaughter Beach, Dog: Birdie

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Last but not least is the second album from Philadelphia-based singer songwriter/ punk band Modern Baseball member Jake Ewald. Since the aforementioned band’s hiatus, Slaughter Beach, Dog has become the outlet for Ewald’s creative force. This album was just what I needed in autumn when it was released. I don’t know him personally, but this album seems to be heavily inspired by the writer’s childhood; through that seemingly simplistic goal comes musical depth and quality.  This record, along with it’s pre release E.P. brother “Motorcycle.jpg”, are both musical offerings that make me excited for the future of Slaughter Beach, Dog.

So ends my list. I am eager to see what 2018 brings on the high seas of the ocean of music that already exists.
Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read this.
J.

Why buy an Album?

We live in a generation of immediacy. Microwave dinners, whole t.v. seasons released in one day and watched in the next two. And perhaps most accessible of all, streaming music.  Enormous libraries of musician’s art and work at our fingertips. Whether it’s on a phone, a home computer, gaming consoles or a tablet; if you want it you can have it. Unless you want Jay-Z or Beyoncé. You’ll have to pay for them. So in this time when you can get what you want when you want while paying very little or nothing for it, why buy an album? Why not a best of, or just the singles from the release?

Well to me the idea of the “album” has always been a place where the artist or band has their last say into what statement they are trying to make with their music.
I shall attempt to demonstrate what I mean.

I love the Gorillaz. I understand they are not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s okay. But their 2005 album “Demon Days” has been a constant in my car’s cd player, in my iPod and on my record table for years. And it’s not because of the hits on the album although they are numerous and great. Killers like “Feel Good Inc” or “Dirty Harry” are singles worth remembering and replaying. But it is in the themes and composition of the album that makes it a classic in my head.

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The record begins with a sample from the soundtrack of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie classic “Dawn of the Dead,” which leads into the first musical track “Last Living Souls.” A musical question mark to kick off the album.  The thesis statement if you will.
The singer asks himself and the listener what is the state of the world that we’re living in? Is it a post apocalyptic zombie infested wasteland. Where the soul is marred and destroyed? Is the singer the part of the last human generation to have ever felt joy?

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This idea, questioning whether or not we are in the last days, the evil days, the demon days, repeats numerous times. The album is a reflection on what brings happiness, what devices and desires we turn to in our search to rise above.  Probably the most poignant example of this is the two tracks that sit in the middle of the record  “Feel Good Inc.” And “El Mañana”. I highly reccomend watching them both.

High above a desolate city the tower looms. An edifice to carnal consumers and voyeuristic mania Feel Good Inc. The singer desperately detailing his desire to escape the crushing weight of living like this but also his inability to leave. Then breaking through both musically and thematically is the vision of freedom. A flying windmill. Peace, serenity and love

“Windmill, windmill for the land
Turn forever hand in hand
Take it all in on your stride
It is ticking, falling down
Love forever, love has freely
Turned forever you and me
Windmill, windmill for the land
Is everybody in?”
“Feel Good Inc.” 2005.

 

The windmill is what the singer and what this album desires. Freedom and untainted love, perhaps even innocence.

The tragedy of this musical pairing lies within the second track “El Mañana.” In the music video the windmill is destroyed and with it the singer’s glimpse at a different world. Lyrically the melancholy ballad is about the loss of love.  Can he go on to the next morning? Has he lost his mind as well as his joy? I’ll admit perhaps this a little dramatic. But the theme of desperation in these last demon days of the world continues strongly through these two tracks.

There are many other examples of how this album carries on these ideas but it is again the composition and narrative theme that I want to draw attention to. If these tracks were in a different or even contrasting order the album could have a completely different meaning. Almost as much so as if there were entirely different songs placed on the record.  The goal of a band or artist that doesn’t simply want to make hits or the fast food version of music should aspire to create a complete set piece; An Album. I’m not trying to sound like a snob, though I may be doing just that. Individual songs have their own strong merits, and not all albums need to be making a thematic statement like “Demon Days,” “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” or ‘The Soft Bulletin” to name some others.  But an artist who doesn’t make use of this tool at their disposal is not making use of all the potential. It’s one of the things that makes music so unique as an art form.

So next time one of your favourite bands or musicians puts out a tune consider buying their album, listening to the whole thing and see if maybe the song you like is about something else entirely.

Thanks for stopping by
J.