Best of Speakers 2017
My choices for the two best albums of the past year (which I split in a tie for 1st) is a perfect summation of my eclectic and broad taste in culture. Do you know anyone else who played a Broadway cast recording and a landmark hip hop album more than anything else? (Now that I type that, you could easily make some kind of connection to "Hamilton" but that makes it less unique than my hipster cred can allow.)
ANYWAYS...check out my favorite music of 2017. Overall, it wasn't that notable of a year. I was let down by many of my past favorite artists but the stuff I liked, I REALLY liked. 2018 has the potential to be earth-shattering artistically in response to the current social discord but until that arrives, I have a couple albums to help me get through the day.
Here are my Top 15 albums from 2017!
15. RUN THE JEWELS - RUN THE JEWELS 3
I'm putting my favorite album of 2016 as the first entry on this list for a couple reasons. One, it is that good. Two, it came out after Christmas and feels like it should be considered as a 2017 release anyway. This duo of monster MCs has released three amazing albums, each one better than the previous one. They portray all that makes hip hop great - social commentary, humor, motivation, and storytelling. Plus, they released what may be my favorite song from the year with Big Boi & Danger Mouse on the Baby Driver soundtrack. RTJ hasn't let me down yet.
14. FATHER JOHN MISTY - PURE COMEDY
Josh Tillman, aka J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty, is one of the most prolific songwriters going today. He is purposeful with his art and clearly uses it as personal therapy while inviting you to reap the benefits as well. Pure Comedy feels like a time capsule - like a contemporary of musicians like Paul Williams, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, etc. learned that a failed businessman/reality show host/criminal becomes President and puts our society into an accelerated down-spin. He then made this album, buried it, and had it dug up at the time it was most needed.
13. KESHA - RAINBOW
It is no secret that I can be a bit of a "culture snob" and that is never more true than when it comes to music. I am not a huge fan of Top 40 pop music. I don't listen to the radio. If it is not covered by NPR Music, in a movie, or on SNL, I probably don't know about it. But occasionally I will happen upon something that grabs my attention. That is exactly what Kesha's Rainbow did. This is very much a "pop" album (outside of the empowering sonnet Praying) and shouldn't be something I like...but I do and I think I am learning why it is called pop(ular) music.
12. MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA - A BLACK MILE...
Usually artists wait until they go stale or get bored to try something new but no band has been more proactive in reinventing themselves than Manchester Orchestra. They do something new with each album and their fifth full length release, A Black Mile to the Surface is no exception. There are several different ways to approach making an album - it could be a central theme or simply just a collection of songs that the artist has been working on. Manchester Orchestra seems to start with a certain kind of sound and go from there. A Black Mile... is the mark of a band that continues to mature in sound and message.
11. BIG THIEF - CAPACITY
This Brooklyn-based indie darling can attribute their quick success to one factor - they make great songs. Less than a year after the release of their debut album, Masterpiece, Big Thief shows that they don't play games or waste time. They like to make songs, they are good at making them, and they want to share them with us. Essentially, they are humanitarians and should be praised. All hail Big Thief!
10. THE KILLERS - WONDERFUL WONDERFUL
Can you believe that The Killers have been around for over 15 years?! Like most humans that existed in 2003, I loved the band's debut, Hot Fuss, but gradually, with each release, they faded from my interest. Wonderful Wonderful changed all of that in a single listen. This is a band that has found new inspiration through the personal journey of their charismatic lead man Brandon Flowers. This album is Flowers at his most open and vulnerable while not losing the confidence of a person with hope for the future. The best records make you want to dance at some point and likewise cry at another. Wonderful Wonderful is the perfect way to describe how this release will make you feel.
9. HARRY STYLES - HARRY STYLES
How shocked are you? Did I lose all credibility in your eyes? Is the debut solo album from a heartthrob formerly of the boy band One Direction really on this list?!
Believe me, I get your skepticism but all I can say is to listen to it. Pick at least 3 songs, any 3 songs on Harry Styles, and I guarantee that you will, at the very least, be surprised. Harry knew the built-in following he already had when he went to make this record and he didn't care about the risk of losing them. He sounds like he finally got to make the album he always wanted to make, like he is finally free to be his own true artist. In the same way that Robert Pattinson is doing his best to separate himself from the Twilight label, Harry Styles knows he is a talented artist with range and going with that belief is the only choice he will make from now on.
8. THE NATIONAL - SLEEP WELL BEAST
If Leonard Cohen joined Interpol, you would get The National. In the same vein as Radiohead, this critically acclaimed group from Cincinnati has become the poster child of the popular indie rock scene. If you are a white dude with a beard, black-rimmed glasses, and suspenders, you like The National. It is a well-deserved title, however, and Sleep Well Beast should only expand their fanbase as it is their most accessible album to date. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness is their first single to ever chart at number one but don't worry, they keep their dark melancholy tone that we've grown to love so much. This is one of those bands that I believe will play an important role in the artistic world's social commentary movement.
7. HAIM - SOMETHING TO TELL YOU
You're not going to find Something to Tell You on many "Best Of" lists and I find that a bit surprising. It's biggest detriment is that it doesn't differ that much from the band's full-length debut, Days Are Gone, but that record was a critical darling - why not stick with what works?!
Actually... I get it. HAIM took almost 4 years to release the follow-up to their tremendously successful rookie effort and to not try anything new or take any risks is kind of frustrating. What took so long? Was their no inspiration in that time period? Something to Tell You is safe but I have got to say...I still dig the sound. HAIM is just freaking cool. I hope it doesn't take 4 years for the next one.
6. JULIEN BAKER - TURN OUT THE LIGHTS
Julien Baker is a vitally important voice in the singer-songwriter scene today. As a young woman who identifies as both gay and Christian, she represents a portion of our community that needs to be heard and respected more. Bringing a beautiful folky sound inspired by her hometown of Memphis, Turn Out The Lights is the record for nearly all scenarios; like a lazy, rainy afternoon or an inspiring day trip to a neighboring town. She may seem meek on the surface but Julien Baker packs a punch and she will be heard.
5. LORDE - MELODRAMA
Does anyone know those "Obama Birth Truthers"? I think I might have their next assignment. Lorde claims to be a mere 21 years old but that just can't be true. If the lyrics and storytelling on Melodrama are any indication, Lorde is actually an emotionally weathered and insightful 48-year-old woman.
In all reality, this girl is the definition of "wise beyond her years". Lorde definitely arrived on the scene with her moody debut Pure Heroine but this follow-up makes sure you know she is here to stay. Clearly written from a place of immense solitude, Melodrama tells the story of heartbreak and the moods that come with recovery. While so many new, young female artists think they have to get naked in some form to be successful, Lorde chooses to bare her soul instead. That is way more impactful.
4. JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT - THE NASHVILLE SOUND
Formerly of the prominent country rock outfit Drive-By Truckers, Isbell is forging his own path with a full embrace. After dealing with major substance abuse issues in 2012, Jason Isbell is a man reborn and he is spreading his gospel through the things that saved him - his music and his family. Out of this familiar structure, Isbell feels free to be honest and cathartic through this art.
His backing band, The 400 Unit, provides an opportunity to sonically build upon this post recovery renaissance that earned him the chance to be the artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The Nashville Sound solidifies Jason Isbell as a reliable songwriter with something to say, especially within the conservative-leaning world of country music.
3. SYLVAN ESSO - WHAT NOW
The title for this sophomore effort from the electronic pop duo is very appropos of a clear self-examination that is happening. Sylvan Esso is at the top of their game and want to know where to go from here. They acknowledge the limitations of electronic-driven music and are critical of the pop music scene. What Now is their middle finger to the industry while on their way out of the door. They have outgrown their corner of the radio world and ready for something new. If they remain true to themselves, it will be at least interesting. Let's hope that What Now goes down as the mark of an amazing transition for a powerful band.
1(B). "DEAR EVAN HANSEN" ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING
While the show actually premiered on Broadway in late 2016, this original cast recording of Dear Evan Hansen didn't come out until February 2017. So unless you were lucky enough to get to NYC and drop a decent amount of cash on tickets, this album was the first real access people had to this unbelievably amazing musical. No record was played more often this past year through my earbuds, car speakers, computer, or my head while in bed trying to fall asleep.
I will be writing more about this show soon and encourage you to keep an eye out for that piece. Dear Evan Hansen has had a MAJOR impact on me and I want to turn as many people onto it as possible. I was blessed to have had the privilege to see it twice with Tony winner Ben Platt in the lead. It was my highlight of 2017.
1(A). KENDRICK LAMAR - DAMN.
Kendrick Lamar is one of the most prominent voices of his generation. A brilliant lyricist and storyteller, Lamar does everything with substance and virtuosity. Weirdly jubilant beneath a very rough exterior, DAMN is conscious rap at its finest. Kendrick's analysis of where the world has gone is on point, not just for young African Americans but for everyone who will listen. He helps us focus on our role in the chaos and rallies everyone behind the hopeful drive for correcting the course for future generations. If we improve as a society, we will look back and appreciate art like DAMN for playing a role in that success.
That's it. No real honorable mentions or anything. What made your favorites list? What did you listen to more than anyone else this year? Which release deserves more praise?