Sunday, December 10, 2017

The best pop music of 2017: ten albums worth hearing

In the classroom, it's becoming increasingly difficult to command the attention of my students. Before class starts, half of them have their laptops raised. After being asked to put their electronic devices away, half of them still have their laptops up, perusing the internet. Or maybe they are snagging one last YouTube listen of a favored song before I start a discussion of libel law or the latest presidential attack on "fake news" sources. Anything to distract them from the ever-shifting reality of their lives.

I understand.

In a world that constantly seems to be on fire, distractions are necessary. We flit from moment to moment: checking email; re-tweeting evermore Trump terrors; constantly texting family, friends and lovers; looking over our shoulders worried about when alt-right born again Christians will hold their anti-abortion rallies on campus or when Neo-Nazis fired up by Steve Bannon's apocalyptic rants will conduct a tiki torch parade through our sleepy, suburban borough.

Who has time for hearing more than a song or just a snippet of a song any more? Who has the  patience required of listening to an entire album? What's really the point? We all watch with increasing paranoia as the world twitches nervously on its axis, awaiting missiles from North Korea to fly over Hawaii and wonder with increasing disgust how Congress can pass a tax bill aimed at lining the pockets of billionaires at the expense of the middle class.

Well, it's Christmas time. And I've been doing this list for a long time. And there may still be a handful of folks reading this column who care as deeply about the role music plays in their lives as I do and who may be curious enough to seek out music that might actually charm them for 30 or 40 minutes, not just two. As Van Morrison once famously said at the end of a concert: "It's too late to stop now."

Herewith, then, are 10 compact discs worth finding that came out this year. Some you probably have heard already. But I promise you, there are some delightful surprises here, too. Not every album on this list will immediately satisfy your soul. Some are pretty challenging, sung in languages you won't recognize. Some so quirky they'll seem more like sonic trickery than life-changing moments. For what it's worth, however, these are the ones I have enjoyed hearing the most this year.

1. "A Deeper Understanding" by The War On Drugs. (Atlantic).  Back when I started writing this "best of the year" column, Okkervil River released my favorite album of the year two years in a row.  The War on Drugs was at the top of my list in 2014 when they released "Lost In a Dream."  This year's effort (their first on Atlantic Records and clearly the vision of its leader and songwriter, Adam Granduciel) follows the "Dream" template: mesmerizing melodies awash with interlocking guitar parts, whirling Wurlitzers and analog synthesizers that induce head nodding bliss and feet-tapping rhythms. I can't think of a major album release aimed at a pop audience since "Strange Days" by the Doors that featured a song 11 minutes long ("This is the End"), as "Thinking of a Place" does on this album. As if to tell their fans a major label was not going to influence what the band wanted to do, "Thinking of a Place" was the first song released by the band on their new label. This one, like most great albums, stands up to repeated listening and will grow on you as time goes by.

2. "Elwan" by Tinariwen. (International).  Blues music from the Mali desert for adult ears. It's safe to say my affinity for the music of The War on Drugs and Tinariwen shows me hewing close to bands that rely on swirling guitars to achieve a sense of mystic serenity. If you are a fan of the former, and haven't dipped into the pleasures of this African collective, you own it to yourself to find "Elwan" or their 2014 record, "Emmaar".  Most of the songs are sung in Tuareg, a Berber dialect, and their music bears a distinct resemblance to the guitar blues of their nation's foremost blues magician, Ali Farka Toure. American rockers Kurt Vile (who appeared with Tinariwen in February at Philly's Union Transfer), Mark Lanegan and Matt Sweeney appear as guests. If you allow yourself be transported into this universe of desert harmonies and the record's intricate, hypnotic drumming patterns, you may escape the fury of the president's tweets for an hour and find peace, if not a deeper understanding.

3. "Lotta Sea Lice" by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile (Rainy Day Records). While we're speaking of Kurt Vile, his quietly effective intercontinental collaboration with Aussie rocker Courtney Barnett was one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Shipping music files across oceans and face timing with one another, the Philadelphia native managed to develop a musical partnership with Barnett that has resulted in a laconic, slacker masterpiece. Let the lazy, meandering "Outta the Woodwork" creep out of your stereo speakers some Sunday morning and you'll better understand the absolute enjoyment of doing nothing more than savoring a third cup of java while waiting for the Sunday paper to arrive on your front porch. Feel the gentle sway of a sailboat while  Vile and Barnett slur the song's central riff, "She's so easy" and forgot about those North Korean missiles for a blissful hour or so.

4. "The Order of Time" by Valerie June. (Concord). Timothy Monger's review of the new Valerie June album calls her 2017 release "an ethereal dream sequence of Americana and roots music filtered through her own unique tendancines. What's refreshing about June is her gift for nuance, working unhurriedly through tones of  Appalachian folk, gospel, blues and even dream pop without feeling the need to his listeners over the head with an overwrought delivery." Why try to improve on that? "Long Lonely Road" and "Got Soul" are standout cuts, but like the other three albums listed above this one, it's best listened to at your leisure, as a whole, if at all possible while languishing in a bathtub full of warm, soapy water.

5. "Masseduction" by St. Vincent (Loma Vista). I can't honestly say I am a huge Annie Clark fan. But my son, Luke, and another music maven associate whose opinion I trust both insisted upon its greatness. I was underwhelmed by the manufactured, disco-era drum beats of its dance tracks on initial listen. But by the third time I heard this I had to agree. It's probably the best pure pop album of the year, an alluring mix of dance floor rave-ups and confessional songs that penetrate the cultures battle of the sexes more articulately than most artists attempt. Clark's plaintive yowl on the album's title track, ("...I can't turn off what turns me on...") sounds less like a soundbite now than it did in October when the album was released and more like a feminist manifesto when the come-uppance of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and other predatory males dominate the headlines. She timed this one perfectly. If you only have the patience to hear one "of the moment" album this year, this is it.

6. "Halo" by Juana Molina (Crammed Discs). Juana Molina was once known in her South American homeland of Argentina more for her comic acting on a daytime telenovela than for her music. Now she's reaching a worldwide audience for her alluring mix of ambient, experimental psychedelia conveniently tabbed as "folktronica." If you don't know Spanish, you won't appreciate the lyrical content of these songs. Don't let that keep you from enjoying this, her seventh album. (All are worth finding if you enjoy this one). "Cosoco" and "Paraguaya" are two must-hear tracks that will put you in a trance. Don't sleep on "Halo" until you've given it a chance. Then, enjoy. It will cure insomnia. I mean that as a compliment.

7. "Black Origami" by Jlin (Planet Mu Records).  A head's up: the pleasures of "Black Orgami" will take some time to grow. This is the most experimental (maybe mind-altering) music on my end of the year list. Jlin (pronounced "Jill-in" like "chillin' ") is an African-American woman from Gary, Indiana (Jerrilynn Patton) who seems to take her inspirational cues from the sonic repetitions of street musicians like Nigeria's Konono No. 1. This is a drummer's delight, an infatuating blend of electronic bells, whistles and loops, bassy reverb, turntable twists and turns and vocal yips and yaps without anything remotely approaching song. Not for the faint of heart, but if you like music that thinks outside the box, you need to experience Jlin.

8. "Heavy Meta" by Ron Gallo (New West).  I caught Gallo's blistering "Heavy Meta" set in the basement of the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia last month and my ears still feel as if they are bleeding. (I wore ear plugs, too!). No album was as unabashedly fun to listen to or Philly's urban street life as humorously or keenly observed as this brash nod to the glory days of CBGB's New York punk scene.  On the album's first cut (my favorite song of the year) "Young Lady You're Scaring Me" Gallo laments falling for a psycho chick with tongue in cheek angst: "let's get a house, you and me and me and your 12 cats. We'll put mirrors on the ceiling, we'll have a bunk bed by the bath."  It only gets weirder (and more wonderful) after that.

9. "Uyai" by Ibibio Sound Machine (Merge).  If I owned a convertible, this great Afro-pop dance album might have sparked two dozen spontaneous street celebrations during the course of the summer of 2017. Ibibio Sound Machine's lead singer and primary songwriter, Eno Williams made the best dance trance party record of the year, an upbeat mash-up of Nigerian '70s funk and LCD Soundsystem. Backed by an 8-piece band, heavy on brass, "Uyai" is kicked off by a dancehall call to arms, "Give Me a Reason." I can think of no better reason to turn off FOX or CNN and to revel in the glory of a pop song than this.

10. "New Kind of Normal" by Cayetana (Plum Records). If you can resist the post-punk feminist charms of Cayetana's "Mesa" or ""Scott, Get the Van, I'm Moving" you are a better man than I am. She wasn't on my radar in July when this nifty three-piece all-girl band from Philadelphia played XPN's World Cafe and I am kicking myself for missing all the glorious fun.  They remind me a lot of Ex-Hex, a three-piece band that made my list several years ago. A brash debut. Can't wait to pull out those well-worn Ron Gallo ear plugs and find Cayetana in a local club. See you there! First round is on me!

These are my second ten favorite albums of 2017, in alphabetical order:  "Cubafonia" by Dayme Arocena; "Bedouine" by Bedouine; "Americana" by Ray Davies; "Soul of a Woman" by Sharon Jones and the Dap-kings; "DAMN." by Kendrick Lamar; "Gargoyle" by Mark Lanegan Band; "American Dream" by LCD Soundsystem;  "Melodrama" by Lorde; "Semper Femina" by Laura Marling; "Resistance" by Songhoy Blues.


  1. The writing in this is superb throughout -- I want to hear all of these and re-listen to the one's I already know!

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