Let’s be honest the concept of top or best or favorite is completely based on preference. There is no way to truly quantify the value of recording in away that it would be universally accepted. So, I do not apologize for having an opinion or attempting to rank the music that moved me. Having written and published a public list since 2009, I have adopted some standard rules that I apply to drive consistency from year to year, but even those are subject to change based on the way the wind moves from one day to the next, and now that I have a family that likes to insert their influence on the list all bets are off, really.
Just to refresh everyone, here are some of the items that will influence my placement of an album on the list: as in years past, to make the list, I have to own the CD. Like most, I subscribe to a variety of streaming services, so I end up listening to a lot of music, but in order to be considered for the Top 10, the recording had to be so good that I opened the wallet and dropped some cash for the CD. Other factors that are taken into consideration, vocal quality – what can I say, I like big voices, unique voices, solid voices – total spins, lyrical content, and the ability to pull it off live. I realize the last shouldn’t be in consideration for album of the year, but it’s my list, so… Also, I will not consider EPs. Don’t get me wrong, I like EPs. I listen to EPs, but they always leave me wanting more. The last factor that often comes into play is an artists ability to grow, to expand…to be their best versions of themselves, to drop a disc that was better than their other efforts.
This is the moment where I drop a caveat. From year to year there tends to be at least one recording that I want to recognize, but I just couldn’t add it to the list for one reason or another. This year it is moral. I love 4:44. I think it is a great recording. The production is solid. The beats are tight. The lyrics are forward moving and exceptional, but I am just done supporting adulterers. Keep it in your fucking pants. Seriously. You are married to Queen Fucking B. You have everything. But everything is not enough? But you are sorry; right? Fuck that.
With all the dirty laundry out of the way let’s get into it.
It’s rare that a band appears in back-to-back years. It has happened. Samantha Crain comes to mind, but, again, it is rare. Luckily, Daughter is just bad-ass enough to make it happen. Hitting the list at #7 last year with Not to Disappear, they are back this year with their soundtrack to Before the Storm. What I love most about Daughter is the atmosphere they create with their music, so many layers and textures to lose yourself in. They create the perfect get shit done music, which seems totally appropriate for an episodic video game. If I had one request, it would be more lyrical content. I get that they are creating the soundscape for a video game, but can’t the moments be made more powerful by using lyrics to express the feelings of key characters? Also, it would let us hear more of Elena Tonra’s voice, and that’s really what we want, isn’t it?
Belle of the West was last CD added to the list, but Samantha Fish has been on the list since March. How in the hell is that possible, you may ask. Well, Ms. Fish opted to drop two CDs in 2017 because, fuck it, why not, right? For months I was groovin’ to the up-tempo jams on Chills and Fever, and then she curve balled me, dropping Belle of the West in November. Maybe it is recency bias; maybe it’s just my singer/songwriter sensibilities; maybe it’s my appreciation for Luther Dickinson’s production; but when listening to these two excellent recordings that exist on totally different spectrums, I am drawn to the more acoustic, more reflective, down-tempo recording. Standout tracks like “Blood in the Water,” “Don’t Say You Love Me,” and “No Angels” add just enough sultry stank to set the recording apart from other singer/songwriters dropping CDs in 2017. Throughout the disc, the Delta influence is present, and I also hear shades of Bonnie Raitt, but the net result is a disk that is very Midwest, very bluesy, very country, very Americana, and very Samantha Fish.
The Wild Reeds are another band that I found while I was binge listening to Audiotree. Their harmonies immediately grabbed me, so I started down the YouTube rabbit hole landing on several quality live performances, which pushed me to hit up iTunes and buy their catalog. I had been enjoying Blind and Brave; Songs for the Morning, Afternoon, and Evening; and the live Audiotree recording when I caught wind of a new release. I jumped out on iTunes and purchased without a preview. Like previous recordings, the World We Built offers the same powerful harmonies and distinct phrasings; strongly penned songs and emotional delivery, but it does it with a fuller, more electric accompaniment. While I genuinely appreciate the acoustic, bluegrassy, vibe of the previous discs, I loved their desire to grow and expand. The inclusion of synths adds new textures that make the recording interesting and kept me captivated from start to finish. Another item that really grabbed my attention on this disc was the production quality. The kit sounds incredible throughout – punchy kick with just the right kiss of reverb and a nice snap of the snare. The guitars are nicely separated, leaving the middle free of muddle which can be found in bigger bands. The bass hits nicely with the sub engaged, and can we go back to that kit? Damn, it sounds so good.
The 21 year-old sailor bouncing between gaslight open mics with a cassette of Manic Compression guiding the trips between coffeehouses just threw up two fingers and rejoiced that Quicksand is still making killer music. With labels like post-hardcore and 90’s alternative thrown about, it may be hard to classify Quicksand. So for those not familiar, when I am building playlists, I often find them hanging out with Tool and Helmet, but they would be equally comfortable paired up with Kyuss or some of the more aggressive Seattle bands. Heavy with quick beats and resounding vocals, all of which are highlighted on Interiors. Vega’s fuzzed-out bass creating the drone the moves the tracks along, allowing Cage to showcase his quick wrists, while Capone and Schreifels deliver those anthemic rawk builds, providing the tension and release so integral to the genre. The disk is solid throughout. You can put it in at the start of any roadtrip and let it guide your voyage without the need to skip tracks.
Come on Chris, what are you trying to do to me You know I’ve got rules and shit. Why did you have to throw me a deep sinker and drop two volumes within the same year. What am I supposed to do with that? Judge them separately? Rank one above the other? Well, it is my list, and I am calling it one CD that is brilliant. Deal with it. For those reading the list that really know me, you know Stapleton is everything I aspired to be. Big-ass voice. Killer guitar tone. Writing the most heartfelt songs you ever cried to. While the collection of songs assembled for From a Room offer some uptempo ditties designed to lift the soul, I defy you to give it a good headphone listen from cover to cover without spilling a tear or two. If “Either Way” doesn’t get you, “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” certainly will.
It is so rare for a CD that was released in February to make the final cut, but Notes of Blue is that rare kind of CD. All the social commentary and middle-America earnest lyrics that you’ve come to expect from Son Volt, delivered by a voice that could only be Jay Farrar’s. This go around, Son Volt offers a Delta inspired exploration into crunchy guitar goodness. “Static” is a standout for me. I get stank face just listening to it. Of course, any local reference gets this St. Louisian excited, so “Cherokee St.” also jumps out to me, but the disc is filled with solid tracks, and so much dirty delta goodness. Sown through the dusty fabric of the recording are acoustic gems like “the Storm” and “Cairo and Southern.” My admiration of Farrar and Son Volt is well documented in my past Top 10 lists, but this recording is really special, a must own.
Folks this is where things get real tricky. I found it next to impossible to rank 4 through 2, so I am not. That’s right. It’s my damned list, and if I want to give you three 2s, well that is what you are gonna get. The problem is there is no empirical way for me to differentiate these disks. I saw 2 of them live this year, and they killed it. They had equal distribution of play, with the one that I wasn’t able to see live garnering slightly more spins than the other two; if I were to poll members of the family, they would each pick a different one, so there was no help to be had there. Actually, if I were to ask Wendy Mae, she would likely list Tank and the Bangas as her Top CD in 2017, and she doesn’t give any Fs that their two disks were released in 2013 and 2014. My arbitrary rules are of no consequence to this fiercely independent 10 year-old. I once heard her listen to “Crazy” 27 times in a row. Twenty. Seven. Times.
So here you go, The 2s in alphabetical order.
The undisputed #1 for my 8 year-old, Sleeping Through the War was played before every football practice and game. It was his get-up disk. It is the reason he got a bass for Christmas and wants an All Them Witches tapestry to cover the grill on his amp thanks to their Rig Rundown. For me, the CD reminds me of my best jams in So Much Closer, Whiskey Daydream, and EKe. It’s the direction So Much Closer was headed before we split and where I’d likely land, if I started a new band. Their dynamic shifts; unabashed use of guitar, bass, and Rhodes effects; and poetic lyrics are all staples of my musical interests. Through six disks their growth continues to inspire, and with Sleeping Through the War I believe they tapped into something remarkable. It offers just the right amount of studio magic without seeming over-produced. The energy of their live performance can still be felt on every track while offering enough layering to keep the disk interesting from first note to last. “Don’t Bring Me Coffee” and “Am I Going Up?” are standouts for me, but I never feel the need to skip a song.
From the moment I pressed play I was in love, and at exactly 3:32 of the second track “Appointments” I knew this CD was worthy of a #1 placement. I am often drawing comparisons between the artists on this list and my own music. At my core is a Julien Baker. Six strings. One voice. And fearless creativity. While I have loved every band I have been in and cherish those moments recording and touring, I am most me when it is just me, my guitar, and some effects on stage. What I love most about this recording is she stayed true to her formula. On the heels of a successful first solo effort, it is so tempting to pull together a full band and expand the sound because that’s really what is expected. It’s what I did. The release of my 2nd full length was also the first time I played with a full band. It is what I thought would take me to the next level. Thankfully Julien has enough confidence to know that is not true. Julien has been able to do what I couldn’t. She has created something so moving and powerful that she doesn’t need any other instrument; she doesn’t need anyone else on stage with her. She strips herself bare, opens her mouth and lets all of us into her world, her fears, her anxieties, her passions, her salvation, and it is enough. We ask for nothing more, and thank her for sharing her gifts with us.
Come on; y’all knew it was coming. The disc is incredible. As far as I am concerned, Isbell continues to be the best songwriter of his generation. The Nashville Sound offers a somewhat retro look into his rockier past, highlighting the sonic force that is the 400 Unit while still offering up some intensely introspective yet universal lyrics. When played in the car, there isn’t a family member that doesn’t sing along. The opening tracks of “Last of My Kind,” “Cumberland Gap,” and “Tupelo” perfectly set the mood for the recording, but the hidden gems are still to come. “If We Were Vampires” is the love song all songwriters wish they would have written for their lover, while “Hope and the High Road” provides the hope we all need during these dark days of the new world order. The Nashville Sound spent the vast majority of the year as my #1, but Turn Out Lights which was a late release caused me to question its position, sending me into an intense internal debate that resulted in a totally different direction.
So, how did we land here? Well, for a period I had four #1 CDs, but then my new found fuckit caused me to look at things through a slightly different lens. If Christ Stapleton could drop two volumes and Samantha Fish could release two separate CDs in one year, then I could pair The Echo Mountain Sessions (also released in 2017) with What Now when making my final assessment. On its own, What Now was my wife’s pick for #1. It was probably Wendy Mae’s pick, if I was able to confine her to CDs released in 2017. We took a family roadtrip to Indianapolis to see Sylvan Esso kill it live, and I spun the disc as much as any CD this year. It is another go-to for me when getting shit done. Also, it is impossible for me to not move when listening to What Now. Truly, it is worthy on its own, but the Echo Mountain Sessions really pushed it over the top. Watching and hearing them remix four of the tracks using actual instruments blew my mind. The artistry. The talent. It was all just simply too much to ignore. When you pair all that with lyrics that are actually saying something, it became apparent that I had found my #1. What Now eases you into the fun with a couple subtle tracks more focused on the lyric than the beat, but the dance party kicks into action with the third track, “Die Young.” When “Radio” comes on, you cannot stop your body from moving, as you sing at the top of your lungs because Amelia’s pissed and so are you! It’s a wrap with “Kick Jump Twist.” Lights have been turned off; glow sticks have come out; and your arms are a jumbled mess of hippie moves and failed attempts at animation. Thankfully “Song” provides a brief respite from the dance party ‘cause I am too old and fat to keep up, but they are only giving you one song to breathe. “Just Dancing” is everything you need to let lose and dance like no one is watching before the disk fades out with three numbers that have you thinking as much as moving.