Eight of the best singer-songwriters, an electronic band re-defining the term cinematic, and an indie giant of a band are among today’s Favorite Albums of 2017 – Part 3 edition. All of them released heart-stopping songs and show-stopping records that we kept on repeat because they were simply captivating.
Jay Som (USA) – Everybody Works
(via Polyvinyl Records)
Many musicians who self-record achieve a gauzy pastel haze. In another corner of the music world, many aspiring pop craftspeople pepper their music with well-built pop hooks, tight and earworm-y. Fewer still can do both on the same album. Everybody Works, the sophomore album from Melina Duterte – a.k.a. Jay Som – is one of those rare records.
After countless hours structuring and restructuring songs, throwing out demos, and furiously putting together the set that would become Everybody Works, Duterte’s tireless efforts have yielded one of the year’s most surprising and memorable LPs. The hushed delivery on “The Bus Song” draws you in as Duterte journeys through self-belief and co-dependence. She goes from crisply-written, loosely-played guitar pop to slower-simmering arrangements in the core trilogy of the album, “One More Time, Please”, “Baybee”, and “(BedHead)”.
When the ten songs conclude, you immediately feel its power. You feel the quiet anger, the beaten consistency of a long-suffering partner, and the desperation of a young woman trying to convince her family that a career struggling to make ends meet as a musician is a worthwhile endeavor. It’s all because Melina Duterte works really hard, though the album title seems to shrug it off. If you listen intently, however, you’ll realize she really, really wants this. We want it for her, too. ~~~ Ben
Julia Holter (USA) – In The Same Room
(via Domino Recording Co.)
It’s usually hard to make a case for a live record to be on a “Best Of” list. We’ve heard many of Julia Holter’s songs through her various releases. When transplanted into a live environment, however, these songs thrive. The result is the finest release in Holter’s catalogue, and an album we can’t ignore in our top albums list. In The Same Room captures the transcendent experience of a Julia Holter live show right on record, and it’s glorious.
The album kicks off with a flooring re-imagination of “Horns Surrounding Me” from Loud City Song. Gone is the overwhelming swell of horns, as the track is backed by a chaotic layer of strings that transform the song. Older song “So Lillies” follows, evolving into something way beyond it ever was on record. “Lucette Stranded On The Island” is a stunner from Have You In My Wilderness, but the live performance on In The Same Room – with its chimes and viola clashes with wild banging on the piano – takes it to a level. This might be Holter’s finest work. “Betsy On The Roof” is the perfect penultimate track for this record. The song is a monster, be it the studio version or live, and it comes close to the level of “Lucette.”
Although some may prefer songs staying true to the original recordings, Holter proves that reinvention can be memorable. It can also be magical. ~~~ Rich
Julie Byrne (USA) – Not Even Happiness
(via Ba Da Bing Records)
Good luck finding a more spellbinding artist than Julie Byrne. Her second record, Not Even Happiness, came out this year, and it built upon what we love about her music. Byrne’s sound is more expansive, and, as a result, it’s even easier to get lost in her sonic world. It’s heartfelt, emotional, and at times truly heart-wrenching.
The record has a warm quality to it. Maybe it’s Byrne’s voice or her guitar work that always feels meticulously crafted and gently picked. “Follow My Voice” is as beautiful a song as any recorded this year. Her lyrics are powerful, as our January review called them “emotionally crippling”, which speaks to the power of her songwriting. Byrne takes listeners on another lush journey with “Sea as it Glides”. There are times where Byrne’s voice is barely more than a whisper (“Morning Dove” and “All The Land Glimmered”) that offers a calming effect. The album closes with the stunning, synth-driven, “I Live Now As A Singer”, a fitting finale as it’s a showstopper. ~~~ Rich
Julien Baker (USA) – Turn Out The Lights
(via Matador Records)
It’s almost impossible to follow-up a debut like Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle, which was a groundbreaking, emotional record. Unlike many albums released this century, Sprained Ankle was a bare-bones effort of mostly Baker and her guitar with a little bit of percussion and piano mixed in. It’s a tempting risk for an artist to add to their original sound and, thus, compromise the previous magic. It’s also risky to not evolve and continue with “too much of a good thing.” Thankfully on Turn Out The Lights, Baker avoids those pitfalls and delivers one of the year’s finest albums.
The first two tracks unveil Baker’s remarkable talent. “Over” is a beautiful, remorseful, piano instrumental that blends into the finger-picked guitar of the sobering “Appointments”. The two combine to create a truly stunning moment, but the album is just beginning. “Turn Out The Lights” becomes a monster at the end as Baker’s voice screams into a layer of reverb and harmonies as her guitar gets louder and louder. “Sour Breath” escalates with Baker repeating, “The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” harmonizing and building until the lone, distorted, final gasp. Baker offers clever lyricism in “Happy To Be Here” and a whirlwind in “Claws In Your Back.”
So while Turn Out The Lights sees Baker expand from her debut, she also stays close to what made her one of 2015’s biggest surprises. The album is smart and dazzling. It is sad yet exhilarating. It is undeniably moving. ~~~ Rich
Kevin Morby (USA) – City Music (USA)
(via Dead Oceans)
After departing acclaimed band WOODS to start his solo career, Kevin Morby has firmly established himself as one of America’s great storytellers. While his previous albums were positively received, it is on his fourth effort, City Music, where he has written his grandest fable.
Loosely based around his time living in New York City while performing with Woods and The Babies, City Music is part storytelling and another part confessional. Most of the songs brim with enthusiasm while others reflect the stress of living within the confines of a concrete, metallic labyrinth. The album’s bookends illustrate the dichotomy of urban life. The brooding opener, “Come to Me Now”, reveals the loneliness of a woman named Mabel. The city is her prison and a place she must endure. The introspective folk ballad, “Downtown Lights”, explains how a man can always return home after escaping the bright lights of the city.
In between lie tales of the Big Apple’s inhabitants. Inspired by and dedicated to The Ramones, “1234” stands out from the pack for its upbeat, punk-ish quality. It shows that every person has another side that is rarely seen. The uplifting and groovy, classic rock ‘n roll number, “Aboard My Train,” is Morby acting as the conductor, and he’s inviting all the people he’s met to join him on a ride across the city. The seven-minute title track is a lavish glimpse inside the mind of a man wandering the streets of his beloved city and saying goodbye one last time. All these songs reveal the brilliance of Morby, who, like Dylan and Waits before him, puts a human face to music. ~~~ Ben
Mt. Wolf (UK) – Aetherlight
(via CRC Music)
Mt. Wolf‘s debut album, Aetherlight, was well worth the wait. For old and new fans, it’s a cinematic masterpiece as the trio of Sebastian Fox, Stevie Red McMinn, and Al Mitchell take us on a ride we won’t soon forget. Its blend of cinematic indie, electronic, and post-rock is unlike anything heard since Sigur Rós‘ Kveikur. It is ethereal yet euphoric, spellbinding and breathtaking, bold yet beautiful. If outer space was our place of worship, Mt. Wolf would be its choir.
The psalm book would feature stand-out tracks like “Heavenbound”, which easily takes us to the afterlife in a spellbinding way; the otherworldly “Soteria”; and the cinematic and breathtaking “Hamburg”. Our spiritual place is the grand “Bohemia”, which exemplifies cinematic splendor. When the sermon is complete, Mt. Wolf leave us reinvigorated and in total awe for Aetherlight is ambitious yet beautiful. It soars well above anything created this year. It is, therefore, not just one of the most compelling albums of the year but an achievement of the highest order. ~~~ Wendy
Nadia Reid (NZ) – Preservation
(via Spunk Records/Basin Rock Records)
While one New Zealander stole musical headlines with her extravagant pop music, another stole our hearts with a sophomore album that is an instant classic. The young woman is Nadia Reid, whose debut album made us take notice while Preservation has us succumbing to the power of her understated alt-folk style. Preservation is intimate and thought-provoking. It is cathartic as a result of Reid’s allegorical and often brutally honest songwriting. It is also enrapturing due to the blend of soundscapes she and her longtime guitar mate, Sam Taylor, create – such as the spellbinding title track to the cinematic suspense of “The Way It Goes”.
“Richard” is the album’s centrepiece, as Reid paints a devastatingly beautiful picture of a former partner and his self-interested ways. It is followed closely by “The Arrow and The Aim”, which is a raw, gritty track journey about self-preservation and new beginnings. Reid, however, also showcases her ability to make the simple dreamy, as displayed on the stunning “Reach My Destination”. Despite its intimacy, there is both humor and warmth in her words.
While many celebrate the work of another Kiwi, in the end Reid’s immaculate piece of art will be long remembered because as history has shown us epic songwriting will always be remembered. Nadia Reid’s Preservation, as such, will endure the test of time. ~~~ Ben
The National (USA) – Sleep Well Beast
It’s rare that all of us here share unanimous approval of an album. But that’s exactly what happened in September when American indie band The National shared their seventh LP, Sleep Well Beast. This is the band’s first effort to reach #1 on the US Billboard charts. It’s no surprise Sleep Well Beast earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album: this is a magnum opus for the Brooklyn-based quintet. It’s a balanced, introspective collection that’s more contemplative than brooding, though – as this track suggests – it’s not a sunny album.
“We’re in a different kind of thing now,” is the subtle pronouncement from frontman Matt Berninger on the album’s lead single, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” From the intro of faintly Beach Boys-esque harmonies on that track to the Radiohead-worthy tones on “Guilty Party,” the band show their willingness to chart a new course. The rich textures created by the Dessner and Devendorf brothers are fuller and more nuanced than on their earlier works, a sign of their continued evolution. This is a gorgeous album that has been on constant rotation since its release. It may, in fact, become a Desert Island pick alongside their Boxer and High Violet masterpieces. ~~~ Hollie
Nicole Atkins (USA) – Goodnight Rhonda Lee
On stage, Nicole Atkins is a superstar. Her voice is as powerful as any other artist. Her ability to write a pop song is only rivaled by her ability to write a rock ‘n roll number, which is almost rivaled by her ability to write a folk tune. She’s as versatile of a songwriter and performer as any. From her pop-noir debut Neptune City to her latest, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, which digs deeply into blues, rock, soul, and even a little country, Atkins’ releases have been consistently great.
Atkins’ voice is front-and center right out of the gates on “A Little Crazy”, which accentuated with a lush layer of strings. “Darkness Falls so Quiet” has a slick groove, and a great drum beat to it, as does “Sleepwalking”. The soulful “Listen Up” is an addictive yet stirring song that belongs on any bedroom playlist. “Brokedown Luck” has a great horn part, and again Atkins’ voice shines. “I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t)” is a wonderful track, and it’s reminiscent of pop pageantry of Neptune City. It’s a heartfelt, if conflicted, song about being proud from where you’re from and the obvious flaws of living there. Atkins’ lyricism is fantastic throughout, and it includes her wit that you’ve heard on her previous releases, such as on “A Night of Serious Drinking”.
While the world waited four years for Goodnight Rhonda Lee, Atkins delivered what is perhaps her finest album. ~~~Rich
Noah Gundersen (USA) – WHITE NOISE
(via Cooking Vinyl)
Seattle singer/songwriter Noah Gundersen takes listeners on an emotional roller-coaster ride with his third full-length album, WHITE NOISE. The slow-burning opener “After All (Everything All the Time)” rivals ballads from The War on Drugs and Strand of Oaks yet maintains Gundersen’s trademark restraint.
Hearing him sing, “I want to see you tonight, one last time,” on “Bad Desire” elicits bittersweet emotions. Those lyrics are especially moving when delivered in Gundersen’s melancholy falsetto. The rainy day tones of “Bad Actors” and the piano-driven “New Religion” remain planted in the mellow category, though that’s the allure of this underrated artist. He displays vulnerability through lyrical honesty and musical simplicity. But beneath the stripped-down nature of these songs lies great depth and tenderness. The haunting strings of “Wake Me Up, I’m Drowning” – one of the album’s longest tracks at nearly seven minutes – stir your soul and take your breath away. Perhaps that’s why I kept coming back to WHITE NOISE: like his two previous LPs, Carry the Ghost (2015) and debut Ledges (2014), it offers warm comfort on those days when you need to escape the white noise of the world and seek refuge in beautiful, therapeutic music. ~~~ Hollie
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