Favorite Albums of 2017

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In the year before she died of pancreatic cancer in 2016, this astounding soul singer recorded one last album, and it’s flat-out terrific — a testament to Jones’ indomitable spirit and the enduring power of the soul music genre when it’s in the hands of such talented artists. daptonerecords.com

2. Joan Shelley: Joan Shelley (No Quarter)
This Louisville singer-songwriter made my favorite record of 2015, Over and Even, and came very close to winning that title again with her self-titled. Simply beautiful acoustic folk music, with a sense of yearning that pulls me in every time. joanshelley.net

3. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Luciferian Towers (Constellation)
This Montreal ensemble may be categorized as rock music, but to me, it’s one of the great orchestras of our time. *Luciferian Towers* is not quite as foreboding or dark as GYBE’s other recent albums, but it’s just as rich and powerful, leaning more toward the light. cstrecords.com

4. The Feelies: In Between (Bar None)
The iconic New Jersey band took six years in between albums this time, finally releasing another excellent collection of groovy rock songs. As the title In Between suggests, this album falls somewhere in the middle of the Feelies’ most pastoral folk rock and its Velvet Underground-style rave-ups. It finds a cool balance. bar-none.com

5. Kacy & Clayton: The Siren’s Song (New West)
This duo from Saskatchewan makes harks back to that part of the 1960s when country, rock and pop seemed to be on the verge of melding into some new genre. And with production help from Jeff Tweedy on this album, the songs sound marvelous. kacyandclayton.com

6. Laura Marling: Semper Femina (More Alarming)
The songs on Marling’s latest record are subtle and complex studies of female protagonists, performed as memorable folk rock in multiple forms. lauramarling.com

7. LCD Soundsystem: American Dream (DFA Records/Columbia)
After calling it quits, James Murphy and his group got back together and made one of their best records filled — the same expertly arranged dance music, but with more wistfulness this time. lcdsoundsystem.com

8. Robyn Hitchcock: Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)
Robyn Hitchcock has been one of my favorite singer-songwriters (and raconteurs of absurdism) since the mid-1980s, but I may have begun taking him for granted. While I have enjoyed many of his other albums in recent years, none of them stuck with me as much as this self-titled one, which finds Hitchcock playing study psychedelic rock songs reminiscent of the work he used to do with his backup group, the Egyptians. robynhitchcock.com

9. Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society: Simultonality (Eremite)
One of Chicago’s most outstanding groups, Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society makes hypnotic records, and this one even climaxes with an ecstatic and beautiful passage with a radiance that evokes John Coltrane’s A Love Supremeeremite.com

10.The Necks: Unfold (Ideologic Organ)
This Australian trio’s meditative improvisations delicately explore how pieces of music can fit together. Over the course of this long album, the Necks continually reinvent how those parts work. thenecks.com

Runners-up:

Jon Langford: Four Lost Souls (Bloodshot)
Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)
Algiers: The Underside of Power (Matador)
The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD)
The Stevens: Good (Chapter Music)
Aimee Mann: Mental Illness (SuperEgo)
Mazes: The Violent Tapes (Sanzimat International)
Margo Price: All American Made (Third Man)
The Cairo Gang: Untouchable (God?)
Tinariwen: Elwan (Wedge/Anti)
Chad VanGaalen: Light Information (SubPop)
The Sadies: Northern Passages (Yep Roc)
Mdou Moctar: Sousoume Tamachek (Sahel Sounds)
Bonnie Prince Billy: Best Troubadour (Drag City)
Björk: Utopia (One Little Indian)
St. Vincent: Masseduction (Loma Vista)
Jeff Tweedy: Together At Last (dBpm)
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (Matador)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)
Kevin Morby: City Music (Dead Oceans)
Mark Eitzel: Hey Mr. Ferryman (Merge)
Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit)
Angelo Badalamenti and various artists: Twin Peaks Limited Event Series Soundtrack (Rhino)
The Replacements: For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 (Rhino/Sire)

Hideout Block Party 2017

I missed the first day and a half of the Hideout Block Party this weekend — I was in Louisville for the Cropped Out music festival — but I got back into Chicago on Sunday afternoon and caught the final few hours of the Hideout’s fun shindig, which I was glad to see making a return after a gap for the past couple of years. Here are my photos from Sunday night, which capped off daylong celebration for the 20th birthday of Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio.

Danielson Famile


Electrical Audio’s birthday

Nina Nastasia


Man or Astroman?

Screaming Females

Cropped Out 2017

Cropped Out, an underground music festival in Louisville, Kentucky, lined up a blockbuster band for the top of its lineup this summer: The Fall. I was already eager to attend Cropped Out again after having a fun time there last year, and this sealed the deal. Alas, The Fall later announced it was canceling this show along with a few others, due to frontman Mark E. Smith’s health. As a replacement, Cropped Out added a new headliner, and it was not a surprising one: Louisville’s own Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who also played at this rather DIY festival last year.

And so, on Saturday, Sept. 24, when Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) stepped up to the microphone, he told the crowd: “Hello, class. Sorry, Mr. Smith is sick, but I’m the sub.” And then Oldham and his band, the Bonafide United Musicians, proceeded to play a set consisting entirely of songs from his most recent album, Best Troubadour, a tribute to the late country music icon Merle Haggard. This was a cool treat for me — it’s an outstanding record that has deepened my appreciation for Haggard’s artistry as well as Oldham’s, and it was great to hear these cover versions in their full live glory.

That was the high point of Cropped Out for me, but it was an interesting couple of days overall — including noisy punk and garage bands. I was especially impressed with the tuneful songs of Athens, Georgia, band Deep State. The Australian punk band feedtime, originally formed in the late 1970s, raged along with the younger groups, and Connecticut’s Magik Markers closed out the weekend with a powerful set.

There was also some jazz, most notably a strenuous, intense solo performance by Peter Brötzmann on the deck next to the Ohio River, Cropped Out’s most delightful stage. And on the quieter end of the spectrum, a lovely acoustic set by The Other Years, a Louisville duo. Other favorite moments for me include Omaha singer-guitarist David Nance’s set, and the hilariously rambling stoner monologues that Frank Hurricane told to introduce his songs. And speaking of funny, Cropped Out included comedy by Neil Hamburger and Chicago-based Sarah Squirm. Two very different comics, and yet in similar ways, they pushed boundaries beyond joke-telling into psychology and performance art.

75 Dollar Bill

John Bender

The Stranger

The Cowboys

Dan Melchior

Crazy Doberman

Tommy Jay

Circle X

Neil Hamburger

Axis: Sova

Royal Trux

Pile

Deep State

The Other Years

Rays

Fried Egg

Matt Jencik

Tyvek

Le fruit vert

Sarah Squirm

David Nance

Tara Jane O’Neill
(with Catherine Irwin and Thalia Zedek)

Billington/Shippy/Wyche

Sadat X

Frank Hurricane

Tyler Damon/Tashi Dorji

Shit & Shine

Peter Brötzmann

feedtime

Bonnie “Prince” Billy
& the Bonafide United Musicians

Magik Markers

Pitchfork Music Festival 2017

I’ve been moaning for years about how seldom two of my favorite musical artists — the Feelies and PJ Harvey — play in Chicago. One of the great things about being a music fan in Chicago is that you get a chance to see just about every touring artist. But there are a few bands and singers who bypass the Midwest or simply don’t tour all that much. Since the Feelies went on hiatus around 1991 and then reunited, the New Jersey rock band had played in Chicago only one time, at Millennium Park in 2009. That year was also the last time British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey had played in Chicago; when she released her recent records, she played only a handful of U.S. shows.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was — along with other Chicago fans of the Feelies and PJ Harvey — when it was announced that both of them were coming to the Pitchfork Music Festival. And they were just two of the artists that made for an especially strong and diverse lineup at this year’s festival, which took place this past weekend (July 14-16) at its usual location, Union Park on Chicago’s West Side. Not surprisingly, as it turned out, the sets by PJ Harvey and the Feelies were two of my favorite moments in a really fun weekend of live music (which was made more enjoyable by the delightfully temperate weather).

Holding a saxophone aloft like a talisman, PJ Harvey made a dramatic entrance as the musicians in her large band banged drums, making the concert feel like some sort of pagan ritual. After opening with songs from her most recent album, The Hope Demolition Project, Harvey seemed to be running backward through her discography, but she eventually circled back to the new songs, with the voices of her bandmates adding to the power of the chorus. As always, Harvey was a riveting presence at the center of the stage. (Set list.)

The Feelies got off to a slightly late start, because the previous act playing on the other side of the field, George Clinton, ran several minutes past his scheduled time slot. That may seem like a minor point — and yes, I was also excited to watch Clinton, the 75-year-old godfather of funk, jamming with his Parliament/Funkadelic group, whom I’d never seen before — but Pitchfork is designed to run on a pretty tight schedule. Once the Feelies started playing, the band hit a couple of wrong notes — that’s hardly an egregious crime, and yet it was surprising, considering how precise the band typically sounds. Once the Feelies had found their footing, however, the group was in top form, strumming its trademark chords to those driving rhythms. (Set list.)

Here’s the rub: As much as I enjoyed seeing both the Feelies and PJ Harvey playing in the beautiful weather in front of crowds in Union Park, I was left wanting more. I’d love to see longer shows by both of these bands, as opposed to these typically condensed festival sets that last an hour or so. (I’m jealous of those who saw the Feelies playing a full show at El Club in Detroit on the following night.) But I will take what I can get. And in general, shorter sets do create a livelier feeling at music festivals.

This year’s Pitchfork experienced some logistical problems — including long lines at the entrance on Friday. And when the big field got crowded at the end of the day, it wasn’t fun to make my way through the throngs of people. And this may be stating the obvious, but depending on where you were at any given moment, your experience of the festival may have been completely different from my own. I watched Harvey’s show from a spot near the stage, but then as she began playing the final song of her set, I started needling my way back through the crowd to reach the photo pit for the next show, by Saturday’s headliners, A Tribe Called Quest. By the time I’d reached the back part of the field, Harvey was still playing, but I could barely hear her music at all. In that part of the park, it was hard to tell that a concert was even going on.

Other highlights for me over the weekend included the resonating shoegaze guitar wall of Ride; the sultry, moody songs of Angel Olsen, which often built to ferocious climaxes; LCD Soundsystem’s dance party (even if it was a bit of rerun from previous fests); George Clinton’s nonstop groove; the boundless enthusiasm and catchy riffs of the garage rockers Priests, Cherry Glazerr, Jeff Rosenstock and NE-HI; Thurston Moore, still doing music that sounds like Sonic Youth (and why the hell not?); the enthralling songs of Mitski, who seemed almost stoic during the early part of her set (I wasn’t able to stay for the whole performance, which reportedly climaxed with a “primal scream”); Colin Stetson’s stunningly muscular saxophone minimalism; A Tribe Called Quest paying tribute to its recently deceased member, Phife Dawg, with an energetic set; the beautiful and passionate vocals of Jamila Woods; and R&B star Solange’s elaborately staged visual and audio spectacle.

Photos of Day 1 / Day 2 / Day 3

Pitchfork Music Festival 2017: Day 3 Photos

Photos from July 16, 2017, the third day of the 2017 Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, Chicago. (Click on these links to jump ahead to the photos of an artist: Kilo Kish, Colin Stetson, NE-HI, Derrick Carter, Isaiah Rashad, Joey Purp, Hamilton Leithauser, Ride, Jamila Woods, American Football and Solange. Photos from Day 1 and Day 2. Read my blog post about the festival.

Kilo Kish

Colin Stetson

NE-HI

Derrick Carter

Isaiah Rashad

Joey Purp

Hamilton Leithauser

Ride

Jamila Woods

American Football

Solange

Pitchfork Music Festival 2017: Day 1 Photos

Photos from July 14, 2017, the first day of the 2017 Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, Chicago. (Click on these links to jump ahead to the photos of an artist: Madame Gandhi, Priests, Dawn Richard, Hiss Golden Messenger, William Tyler, Vince Staples, Thurston Moore, Danny Brown, Kamaiyah, Dirty Projectors and LCD Soundsystem. Photos of Day 2 and Day 3Read my blog post about the festival.

Madame Gandhi

Priests

Dawn Richard

Hiss Golden Messenger

William Tyler

Vince Staples

Thurston Moore

Danny Brown

Kamaiyah

Dirty Projectors

LCD Soundsystem

Big Ears Festival 2017

(Links to Big Ears Festival photo galleries)

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The Norwegian composer and violinist Nils Økland summed up the spirit of the Big Ears Festival when he spoke to the big crowd applauding his music at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Knoxville, Tennessee. “You come here to hear things you don’t know — alien things — from places you don’t know, by people whose language you do not know,” said Økland, who was playing in the United States for the first time ever. He seemed to marvel at the rapturous reception he was getting.

Every pew was filled for that concert on March 24, as afternoon sunlight streamed in through the big stained-glass windows. People stood along the walls and sat on the floor against the back wall so they could hear Økland and his band. His gorgeous music glowed, all of the instruments combining into an organic whole. There was something transcendent about it, and the church felt like a perfect setting for Økland’s American debut.

This is the sort of moment that makes Big Ears so special. The annual festival in downtown Knoxville features indie rock music — this year’s acts included Wilco and the Magnetic Fields — but the diverse lineup runs the gamut from folk and jazz to classical and experimental music. The emphasis is on adventurous music. I attended the first Big Ears Festival back in 2009 and I’ve been wanting to return ever since; I finally made it back to Knoxville this past week. My experience reaffirmed Big Ears’ standing as one of the most interesting and enjoyable music festivals.

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This year’s festival was four days, with concerts at nightclubs, theaters and churches spread out across downtown Knoxville (a city known for hosting the 1982 World’s Fair). While some of the venues fill up for certain shows, it’s a fairly mellow event as far as the audience goes. It’s easy to walk between the venues, and you aren’t likely to get shut out of too many concerts.

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Many of the artists performing at Big Ears do more than one show, playing in various combinations. Wilco’s concert on Friday, March 24, at the grandiose Tennessee Theatre was an outstanding example of this Chicago rock band’s virtuosic performances, but it was just the start of several Wilco-related events. I also caught part of Jeff Tweedy’s set with Chikamorachi (bassist Darin Gray and drummer Chris Corsano), where he improvised loud, atonal noise on electric guitar; drummer Glenn Kotche’s fun set as part of the On Fillmore duo with Gray; and guitarist Nels Cline’s guest appearance with Dustan Louque. (See my photos of Wilco and Wilco’s side projects at Big Ears.)

After seeing that wonderful performance by Nils Økland and his band at St. John’s, I made sure to see one of several other shows he performed. The one that I saw, at a nightclub called the Standard, featured Økland in duets with fellow Norwegian composer Mats Eilertsen on bass. (See my photos of Nils Økland at Big Ears.)

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Another star attraction at this year’s Big Ears was the English minimalist composer Gavin Bryars, whose ensemble was playing in the U.S. for the first time. I saw part of the ensemble’s concert on Saturday, March 25, at St. John’s Cathedral and two full concerts on Sunday, March 26, featuring Bryars’ most famous works: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic.

Bryars played upright bass as he conducted the musicians with a few subtle gestures. Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is a piece that has haunted me for years, built around a loop of tape Bryars recorded in 1971, of an old Englishman singing the religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”

Bryars and his ensemble — supplemented by members of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra — remained still and silent for several minutes on the stage at the Mill and Mine nightclub as the tape loop began playing. Then they slowly began adding orchestral accompaniment to the anonymous man’s sorrowful lament, playing with intense precision. Through sheer repetition, the music disoriented. At the same time, it felt majestic. (What happened to that man on the tape recording? Bryars writes: “Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.”)

Later that night, the Bryars Ensemble concluded the festival at the Tennessee Theatre with a performance of The Sinking of the Titanic, featuring a historic film about the ship’s fateful voyage projected on the screen behind the orchestra. The pictures in the film were doubled, with a mirror image on one side, as the ensemble played another cycling Bryars composition, with a soundtrack of crackles, voices and maritime noises mixed into the music. (See my photos of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble at Big Ears.)

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In addition to Wilco, highlights of the rock music at Big Ears included Xiu Xiu devoting an entire concert at the Tennessee Theatre to Angelo Badalamenti’s music of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series.

My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova (formerly named Shara Worden) returned to her rock-trio roots during her set, while Blonde Redhead played its 2004 album Misery Is a Butterfly with accompaniment by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.

Scottish composer Anna Meredith’s band played an invigorating set that combined classical minimalism with rock.

Chicago’s Tortoise delivered a strong set of its instrumentals.

And Robyn Hitchcock was as great as usual, opening his set with covers of the music that influenced him as a young songwriter (Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Syd Barrett).

Singer-songwriter Joan Shelley sounded as beautiful as ever, previewing some of the music from her forthcoming album.

After years of making instrumental records, Colleen (aka French musician Cécile Schott) sang delightful songs, playing the viola de gamba, melodica and keyboards.

Gyan Riley’s solo acoustic guitar performance was stunning.

And the Swedish musician Emilia Amper’s performance on the nyckelharpa — including an explanation of this bowed instrument with keys — was throughly enchanting.

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The experimental electronic music duo Matmos covered the 1979 Robert Ashley album, Perfect Lives (Private Parts), which is described as an opera, with assistance from several musicians and singers. With a fractured narrative delivered as spoken word, it was a perfect fit for Matmos’ sense of humor and musical textures.

On the jazz side, I saw Carla Bley leading the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, as well as sets by Henry Grimes and Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago composer Henry Threadgill. It was fascinating to hear the instruments in their bands talking to one another.

The Scandinavian group Supersilent combined jazz elements with ambient noise for a powerful and dark late-night set on Saturday. Coming out of that show, I stopped into the Tennessee Theatre and watched about half an hour of the Coen brothers’ movie No Country For Old Men, with an improvised score by the Dave Harrington Group.

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Another intriguing cinematic experience happened earlier that night, when films by Jem Cohen were projected onto the walls of a building in downtown Knoxville while musicians (including Xylouris White) improvised a score. The event, called “Gravity Hill Sound+Image,” attracted passers-by along with festival attendees.

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The Mill and Mine, a venue in an industrial building with a wide open floor, proved to be a great place for classical music as well as rock shows. For several shows at this place, a Steinway piano or other instruments were placed in the middle of the floor, with audience members gathering around the artists. This was a great way to experience Bang on a Can All-Stars pianist Lisa Moore’s performances of works by Philip Glass, John Luther Adams and others.

And it was also the setting for a bracingly weird set of noise and piano by Musica Elettronica Viva, an avant-garde group that started back in 1966, featuring Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzweski and Richard Teitelbaum in this performance. And the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra also performed on the floor, giving listeners and opportunity to circle around and see the tympani and cellos from an unusual perspective.

Other noteworthy classical performances at Big Ears included Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass, performed by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and Theatre of Voices, conducted by Donato Cabrera; the radical vocal experiments of Meredith Monk; and dynamic performances by cellists Oliver Coates and Maya Beiser.

And there was even audience participation. On Sunday, people pulled out some Tennessee stones from a bin and knocked them together in their hands, following the guidance of the late Pauline Oliveros to create a performance she titled “Rock Piece.” 

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A highlight for me was Sorrow, Colin Stetson’s “reimagining” of Henryk Górecki’s 3rd Symphony — essentially, a new arrangement of that symphony, which became a million-selling hit (and a personal favorite of mine) in 1992. Stetson is a wizard on alto and bass saxophones and contrabass clarinet, so naturally, his version of Górecki’s composition uses more woodwinds than the original. It also has electric guitar and drums. But while the textures are different, it doesn’t wander too far from the original symphony. Stetson’s sister, mezzo-soprano Megan Stetson, sang the Polish-language lyrics of Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” Stetson’s Sorrow was stirring to see and hear in a live performance.

As with any festival, Big Ears presented many conflicting musical choices. At many times, there were two or three performances I wanted to see happening simultaneously. (I missed all but a few minutes of Magnetic Fields’ two-part concert, knowing that I will see them soon in Chicago.) But Big Ears was as fulfilling of a festival experience as I’ve had, and the performers seemed to be genuine whenever they expressed their own appreciation of Big Ears. As Lisa Moore commented during her piano recital, musing on the Big Ears name: “It’s not just that the music has wide possibilities. It’s the audience.”

Big Ears Festival photo galleries:

Photos from Day 1 (Carla Bley with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Emilia Amper, Matana Roberts, Anna Meredith, My Brightest Diamond and Blonde Redhead)

Photos from Day 2 (Maya Beiser, Matmos, Robyn Hitchcock, Gyan Riley, Richard Teitelbaum, Ståle Storløkken and Arve Henriksen, Jóhann Johannsson’s Drone Mass, Meredith Monk, Michael Hurley and Tortoise)

Photos from Day 3 (Lisa Moore, Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, Musica Elettronica Viva, Joan Shelley, Colin Stetson Performs Sorrow, the Magnetic Fields, Henry Grimes, Jem Cohen: Gravity Hill Sound+Image, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Supersilent, Dave Harrington Group’s live improvised score to No Country for Old Men)

Photos from Day 4 (Pauline Oliveros’ “Rock Piece,” Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Coates, St. John’s Choral Evensong, Colleen, Henry Threadgill’s Zooid)

Photos of Wilco (plus Jeff Tweedy with Chikamorachi, On Fillmore and Dustan Louque with Nels Cline)

Photos of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble

Photos of Nils Økland