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)

Favorite records of 2013

These are my favorite records of 2013, the ones I enjoyed the most. Betraying my personal tastes, the list is dominated by alt-country and artists working somewhere around that genre’s vague boundaries. Simply put, a lot of my favorite artists came out with new records in 2013, and a lot of those records were very good. My honorable mentions include quite a few records I wish I could have squeezed into my top 10 — and I wish there’d been enough time to listen more closely to hundreds more.

01nickcave

1. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
PUSH THE SKY AWAY

This is the quietest Nick Cave has made in a while, but it’s hardly mellow. In this tense and brooding suite of songs, Cave seems to be drifting in and out of dreams and unsettling nightmares, a world-weary traveler whose memories are slipping away. The fleeting images in his phantasmagoria flash with menace and yearning, climaxing in the epic “Higgs Boson Blues.” nickcave.com

02nekocase

2. NEKO CASE
THE WORSE THINGS GET, THE HARDER I FIGHT,
THE HARDER I FIGHT, THE MORE I LOVE YOU

The latest in a succession of masterpieces by one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of the past decade and a half. Neko Case has said she drew more on her personal life for her lyrics this time, but the evocative poetry of her songs has always been a bit mysterious, and it remains so. Her voice is as beautiful as ever, too, surrounded here by an alluring variety of musical textures, including sonar blips, jingle bells, trumpets and cellos. Case seems to be creating her own genre, even as her innovative songs echo with the radio signal of classic tunes of the 20th century. nekocase.com
03robbiefulks

3. ROBBIE FULKS
GONE AWAY BACKWARD

Many of the smart songs on this intimate, acoustic record could have been written in the 1930s, or maybe even the 19th century. With a couple of exceptions, they’re actually new, but this is music with a true old-timey spirit. Renaissance man Robbie Fulks pulls it off with apparent ease, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of classic and obscure country, folk and bluegrass. He knows the old stuff, and how to make it new again. robbiefulks.com
04billcallahan

4. BILL CALLAHAN
DREAM RIVER

As the title hints, this album feels like a nocturnal journey that flows with the logic of a dream. (In that way, it has a passing resemblance to the aforementioned Nick Cave record, though the two artists have distinct styles and personalities.) There’s a loose, jazzy vibe, punctuated at almost every turn by a singular guitar fill from Bill Callahan’s remarkable sideman Matt Kinsey. It all reaches shimmering perfection on my favorite song of 2013, “Summer Painter,” which finds Callahan musing on the meaning of work, as he sings about a summer job painting rich people’s boats. Then the story takes a turn toward the apocalyptic, when a hurricane hits and people blame the narrator: “Like all that time spent down by the water/had somehow given me control over the rain.” As peculiar as Callahan’s dreams may be, after a while, they start to seem like your own. dragcity.com/artists/bill-callahan

05mikalcronin

5. MIKAL CRONIN
MCII

Like other records of the recent garage-rock explosion, Mikal Cronin’s second album is bursting with exuberance and energy. But it’s also carefully crafted, with a string section adding a touch of grandeur to all of its heartily strummed guitars and pounding drums. The spirit of late ’60s music is alive and well here. One song after another has the sort of melody that makes you want to sing along, thanks in no small part to the vulnerability in Cronin’s voice.  mikalcronin.bandcamp.com

06mccarthrybonnie

6. DAWN McCARTHY & BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY
WHAT THE BROTHERS SANG

Dawn McCarthy has sung haunting harmonies on previous records by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka singer-songwriter Will Oldham. On this tribute to the Everly Brothers, they get equal billing. That’s apt, since the combination of these two voices was one of the year’s delights. The album doesn’t include Don and Phil Everly’s biggest hits, but the song list reminds us just how noteworthy that duo was. In the elegant folk-rock renditions on this record, what the brothers sang sounds beautiful and brand new. dragcity.com/artists/dawn-mccarthy-and-bonny-billy

07davidbowie

7. DAVID BOWIE
THE NEXT DAY

David Bowie’s new album seemed to come out of nowhere. And it sounds like it came from another time and place — maybe the 1980s, maybe somewhere on Planet Bowie. This artist who’s legendary for his innovations and constantly shifting persona isn’t necessarily trying to invent anything new this time around, but it’s a batch of excellent songs. The dense rock-band-orchestra arrangements deliver one great hook after another with some wallop, but more than anything, it’s terrific to hear Bowie singing again, sounding like classic Bowie. davidbowie.com

08jasonisbell

8. JASON ISBELL
SOUTHEASTERN

The former Drive-By Truckers singer-guitarist finally came into his own with this masterful album, striking a chord with memorable turns of phrase and the rueful wisdom of a man who’s made mistakes and learned from them. jasonisbell.com

09mavisstaples

9. MAVIS STAPLES
ONE TRUE VINE

Producer Jeff Tweedy’s clean, simple arrangements bring a warm glow to Mavis Staples’ glorious voice in this stirring set of gospel, soul and folk rock. The first song and the last are modern hymns (one written by Low, another by Tweedy), gracefully restrained prayers to the world. mavisstaples.com

10dollyvarden

10. DOLLY VARDEN
FOR A WHILE

A family album in musical form, with Steve Dawson’s memories filling each page like tantalizing old snapshots. This is the sound of a songwriter and a band at midlife, contemplating their past, present and future, and transforming it into beguiling ballads. dollyvarden.com

 HONORABLE MENTIONS

Molly Drake — Molly Drake
Yo La Tengo — Fade
Kelley Stoltz — Double Exposure
Veronica Falls — Waiting for Something to Happen
Laura Mvula — Sing to the Moon
Richard Thompson — Electric
Heavy Times — Fix It Alone
Cate Le Bon — Mug Museum
Low — The Invisible Way
Laura Marling — Once I Was an Eagle
Charles Bradley — Victim of Love
Waxahatchee — Cerulean Salt
Rose Windows — The Sun Dogs
Twin Peaks — Sunken
I Was A King — You Love It Here
Sam Phillips — Push Any Button
The Sadies — Internal Sounds
David Lang — Death Speaks
Laura Veirs — Warp and Weft
Superchunk — I Hate Music
The Cairo Gang — Tiny Rebels
Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood — Black Pudding
Cave — Threace
Patty Griffin — American Kid
My Bloody Valentine — m b v
The Handsome Family — Wilderness
The Liminanas — Costa Blanca
The National — Trouble Will Find Me
Arcade Fire — Reflektor
Chelsea Wolfe — Pain Is Beauty
Disappears — Era
Midlake — Antiphon
Thee Oh Sees — Floating Coffin
Various Artists — Good God! Apocryphal Hymns
Pelican — Forever Becoming
Rokia Traoré — Beautiful Africa
Black Bug — Reflecting the Light
Kronos Quartet/Bryce Dessner — Aheym
Phosphorescent — Muchacho
Shocked Minds — Shocked Minds
Ensemble Signal — Shelter
Alvin Lucier/Janacek Philarmonic Orchestra — Orchestral Works
Cass McCombs — Big Wheel and Others
Dobrinka Tabakova — String Paths
Frank Rosaly — Cicada Music
Savages — Silence Yourself
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Kurt Vile — Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Nadia Sirota — Baroque
Jacco Gardner — Cabinet of Curiosities
Foxygen — We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Guided By Voices — English Little League
Mind Spiders — Inhumanistic
Ty Segall — Sleeper
Dumpster Babies — Dumpster Babies
Faun Fables — A Table Forgotten

Best Records of 2012


1. SPIRITUALIZED: SWEET HEART SWEET LIGHT (Fat Possum) — Spiritualized maestro Jason Pierce emerged from a brush with death to make a soul-searching, musically rich masterpiece. Lush orchestrations and choirs of harmony singers shine like beams of light to fend off the existential angst creeping into Pierce’s world-weary rocker narration.
spiritualized.com



2. SHIRLEY ANN LEE: SONGS OF LIGHT (Numerophon) — These songs were recorded between 1996 and 1968, but only a few of them were released at the time — and even those were just 45 rpm singles distributed by bicycle in Toledo, Ohio. In other words, even though this is old music, it didn’t truly see the light of day until 2012, thanks to the invaluable work of the master musical archeologists at Chicago’s Numero Group. These spare, occasionally primitive and off-kilter recordings feature little more than piano or electric guitar and Lee’s remarkable voice, but that’s all they need to showcase the heartfelt songs, mostly written by Lee herself. Each song is built around a gospel message, but they transcend any particular religious denomination’s beliefs, expressing life’s universal struggle. When the Numero Group’s Rob Servier visited Lee at her Toledo home in 2008, she had no copies of her own records. Lacking a CD player, she went out into Servier’s car so she could hear the disc he’d made of her old recordings. Hearing the music for the first time in 40 years, she sang along. And now, the rest of the world can marvel at these lost recordings.
Buy from the Numero Group.



3. RADAR EYES: RADAR EYES (HoZac) — Garage rock of the ’60s and punk rock of the ’70s continue to inspire a lot of new music, including many Chicago bands recording on HoZac and other labels. Chicago’s Radar Eyes are one of the best, packing a punch with fuzz-drenched guitar riffs, stomping drumbeats, walloping bass lines, droning keyboards and catchy singing about, well, prairie puppies, among other things. On the final track, Radar Eyes suddenly sounds almost exactly like Joy Division, making for an odd shift in style but one that gradually starts to make sense after you get used to it. A strong set of tunes from start to finish.



4. THE CAIRO GANG: THE CORNER MAN (Empty Cellar) — The Cairo Gang is Emmett Kelly, a versatile guitarist, singer and songwriter who has shown up a lot on Chicago stages over the past several years, always demonstrating an impressive talent for sensitive playing that feeds off the musicians next to him. On this lovely new LP, Kelly’s songs resemble the music he’s recorded as a collaborator with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, but they’re all his own, with subtle, organic arrangements that shift from hushed falsetto ballads to dramatic bursts of rock. In one song, he aptly asks, “Tell me what’s better … being quiet in the noise?”
Buy the record from Endless Nest.
Buy the record on Bandcamp.



5. JOSHUA ABRAMS: REPRESENCING (Eremite) — Joshua Abrams is another musician who appears with Zelig-like frequency in Chicago nightclubs and concert halls, playing jazz as well as experimental music that overlaps with the rock scene. Abrams often plays bass, but on this record he plucks the guimbri, a three-stringed North African bass lute, also known as the sintir. His choice of instrument gives these improvisational jams a tactile sensation — you can almost feel those strings bending and snapping under his fingers. A variety of other musicians join in, creating exotic and evocative sounds. The textures change from song to song, but they’re consistently engaging, even hypnotic.
Buy the record from Eremite, and hear a sample track.



6. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR: ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND ASCEND (Constellation) — Epic visions of decay and destruction, all communicated without a single word being sung. The music by this Montreal collective (back in action after a long absence) could be categorized as instrumental rock music, but that feels like an inadequate label. GY!BE’s compositions owe as much to classical music as they do to rock, and the band erupts into apocalyptic bursts as intense as anything a full orchestra could conjure.
Constellation Records



7. DR. JOHN: LOCKED DOWN (Nonesuch) — The legendary New Orleans singer and keyboard player found an ideal collaborator for this record, working with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The resulting musical stew includes pieces of Afro-beat, Ethiopiques, funk, blues, jazz and rock. It’s colorful, odd and cool.
Nonesuch’s website for Dr. John
Dr. John’s website



8. KELLY HOGAN: I LIKE TO KEEP MYSELF IN PAIN (Anti) — For the past decade, Kelly Hogan has been a singer you had to catch live. Despite having one of the best voices in the business, she shied away from the recording studio. She finally released an album this year, with a top-notch band and a whole slew tunes contributed by noteworthy songwriters. She wrote only one of these songs, but she makes them her own. Hogan’s home territory is a landscape with patches of country music, soul, folk, old standards and rock — classic American scenery.
kellyhogan.com



9. TREASURE FLEET: COCAMOTION (Recess) — This Chicago band features former members of the Arrivals, the Smoking Popes, the Lawrence Arms and Sass Dragons, and the music they make overflows with 1960s influences, including Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Who and the Kinks, and there’s a bit of Guided By Voices in the mix, too. The songs are inventive and scrappy, sometimes whimsical, sometimes yearning, always highly melodic. Cocamotion was just one of two records Treasure Fleet released in 2012; the other was Future Ways, which is almost as great as this one.
Buy the album from Recess Records.



10. CATE LE BON: CYRK (The Control Group) — The Welsh singer-songwriter takes Great Britain’s folk-music idioms and channels them into a rock band setting, adding psychedelic flourishes, Nico-style intoning and waltz beats. Le Bon’s dulcet voice glides serenely and seemingly effortlessly through it all.
catelebon.com
Listen to the album on Paste magazine’s website.


RUNNERS-UP (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
Amadou & Mariam: Folila
Antibalas: Antibalas
Willis Earl Beal: Acousmatic Sorcery
Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself
Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Hummingbird (EP)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Mariee Sioux: Bonnie & Mariee (EP)
Cat Power: Sun
Cinchel: Stereo Stasis
The dB’s: Falling Off the Sky
Dan Deacon: America
Disappears: Pre Language
Divine Fits: A Thing Called Divine Fits
Justin Townes Earle: Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
The Explorers Club: Grand Hotel
Father John Misty: Fear Fun
Bill Fay: Life Is People
Lee Fields & the Expressions: A Faithful Man
Gap Dream: Gap Dream
Guided By Voices: Let’s Go Eat the Factory
Guided By Voices: Class Clown Spots a UFO
Guided By Voices: The Bears for Lunch
Hanne Hukkelberg: Featherbrain
The Horse Loom: The Horse Loom
Catherine Irwin: Little Heater
Kayhan Kalhor: I Will Not Stand Alone
Brendan Losch: Low
Aimee Mann: Charmer
Mexican Institute of Sound: Politico
Mind Spiders: Meltdown
Mount Eerie: Clear Moon
Georgia Anne Muldrow: Seeds
Salim Nourallah: Hit Parade
Angel Olsen: Half Way Home
Oneida: A List of the Burning Mountains
Outer Minds: Behind the Mirror
Poor Moon: Poor Moon
Redd Kross: Researching the Blues
Megan Reilly: The Well
Lee Renaldo: Between the Times and the Tides
Ty Segall: Twins
Ty Segall Band: Slaughterhouse
Spires That in the Sunset Rise: Ancient Patience Wills It Again
Swans: The Seer
The Tallest Man on Earth: There’s No Leaving Now
Thee Oh Sees: Putrifiers II
Treasure Fleet: Future Ways
Trembling Bells & Bonnie “Prince” Billy: The Marble Downs
Corin Tucker Band: Kill My Blues
Sharon Van Etten: Tramp
Waco Brothers and Paul Burch: The Great Chicago Fire
The Walkmen: Heaven
M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion
Patrick Watson: Adventures in Your Own Backyard
White Hills: Frying on This Rock
Matthew E. White: Big Inner
Bobby Womack: The Bravest Man in the Universe
Woods: Bend Beyond
The World Record: Freeway Special
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill