My Top Albums of 2017
It's that time of year again.
Yeah, sure, the time of year where Top Albums Lists come out. That's fine. But I'm more talking about the time of year where I regret that I didn't write about my top albums as they came out instead of doing this at the last minute again. You know. The time of year when you resolve to do things differently next year, but then – of course – you don't.
That time of year.
At the same time, I enjoy these days each December, set aside for some writing that allows me to reflect on music that I fell in love with. It's almost... meditative? That might be the wrong word. Maybe still is a better word. I always love getting to go back through the year and remember the releases I was most excited about, or the ones that caught me off guard, or the artists I discovered, and when and why they meant so much to me.
Anyway, without further ado, here's this year's annual Top Albums list – in no particular order – from yours truly...
David Bazan – Care
Bazan's been on a role these last few years.
Personally, I'd put 2016's Blanco up on a pedestal as high as Curse Your Branches... and then he dropped his Christmas album, and then – in January of this year – he dropped Care. Three releases in a year, not to mention all of the recent press about Pedro The Lion making a comeback in 2018.
I've written plenty about Bazan over the years. I knew nothing of PTL prior to discovering Dave's solo work, even though I attended festivals like Cornerstone during the height of their popularity. Curse Your Branches put me into a bit of a tailspin when I discovered it in 2010, and though I'm landing in different places regarding the faith that I continue to profess, I highly value Bazan's Care (pun intended), conviction and criticism when it comes to many a topic – politically, theologically, socially, etc.
Not least of all: the dude's work ethic is just phenomenal, and I'm always left wondering at how he's managed to stick with it after so many years. (And I'm not, in any way whatsoever, insinuating that Bazan's been anything less than successful – only that doing what he does is difficult work with many a tempting opportunity to bow out.) I've listened to almost every Bazan interview and podcast conversation I can find and, as one independent artist looking in on another, resonate with ups and downs – the accomplishments and the disappointments – that he has not shied away from articulating. It's inspiring to see someone continue to work through the grind that the valleys are after so many years in this career, and – frankly – I am thankful for his example.
I think, also, that Dave has been brave throughout his years as an artist, especially one who began a career as someone who would call things like he sees them. It can be an interesting predicament to find yourself in and – I think – one that many artists struggle with. That just might be one of the many reasons so many of us appreciate Dave's work. To discover an audience in agreement / resonating with your honesty... and also to know that your honesty may be the very thing that drives them away...
I was fascinated by Dave's interview with Vice's Noisey this fall. He said that when he writes, he writes for himself, and rarely considers the audience - almost, even, to the point of finding himself perplexed at their responses. Like, "Oh, I almost forgot... you're going to hear this, too." That's amazing, honestly. I'd love to be able to write like that again. There's a place for temperament and discretion, and based on Bazan's stories of inviting his wife to read / hear / edit some of his words, I think he practices those disciplines, but I do very much appreciate the freedom that sounds like it could be to the creative process.
P.O.S. – Chill, Dummy
My friend Caleb Davis told me about P.O.S. back when he released Never Better. The artwork and packaging that Eric Timothy Carlson designed for that album changed Caleb's life (his words - he told me yesterday when we were talking about it), and P.O.S.'s comfortable flow and unique style may have changed mine. As a hardcore kid, I was fascinated by Stefon's involvement in that Twin Cities scene. I was on that Atmosphere / Rhymesayers tip when I first discovered Doomtree, and it struck me as something different and worth following. The "P.O.S. Is Ruining My Life" track off of Audition, where he samples Underoath's "It's Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door" blew my mind.
Both P.O.S. records since Never Better have taken me some time to get into. At first, I wasn't excited about We Don't Even Live Here, which felt like a huge departure from the music I'd fallen in love with, but I was determined to get into it... and I did. I remember driving into a Southwest sunset with Brandi on one of our west coast tours following the release, and playing it so loud as we drove through winding roads just outside of Tucson, AZ, loving how aggressive the sound was. I'm also pretty committed to sticking it out with artists on the principle that they/we should be allowed to change direction and experiment without the law of "I Liked Their Old Stuff Betters" constantly weighing down on everyone's creativity. I want to be in it for the long haul – as much as possible – for the artists I believe in.
Chill, Dummy felt like yet another departure, and yet another that I grew to love. But not without time and effort. And maybe that's some of the magic P.O.S. has managed to embody: the challenge. He continues to progress in his creativity, and he continues to give his audience an authentic look into who he grows to be. I've seen that both musically and lyrically. For instance, even though I perceive his writing in a relatively disconnected sort of way, his song Sleepdrone/Superposition is full of memoir-like statements and fears and honesties about his kidney failure, the unknowns, the way he wanted to write a song to encapsulate it all but felt each attempt wanting. Those vulnerabilities are real, unmanufactured. I will always love artistry that is able to accomplish that kind of reality – the kind that invites people to come along and shed their costumes, too – no matter how difficult it seems in the beginning.
Chance Espinoza – It Happens
The first time I played a show with Chance, it was with his band Sounds Of Satellites. I want to say it was at a church space in or around San Diego...? He/They had a record out at the time titled God In Quotes. I loved it. I still love it. I remember driving through a Krispy Kreme donuts line with Brandi one night in Southern California, listening to their songs Glory Pt. 1 & 2 and asking "are you a good God?" along with him. I think Chance is an incredible songwriter both musically and lyrically, and the questions and challenges in his words resonated with me from the start.
I was thankful to have shared about five weeks of this year out on the road with Chance. He filled in for the band Everett (also such an incredible band) that I was on tour with in October and November. I didn't realize he had a new record out at all, but I found a link to a video for the opening track "Because It Happened Twice" one day, and went on to jam the record in the months that have followed.
I really enjoy the production and simplicity of this record. Not that creating it was simple (I have no idea about that, aside from the fact that making anything worth making is never simple), but although I enjoy the complexities that make a band a band, I also appreciate that this could be a wonderful one-man-show given the electronic direction that Chance headed for it. From the samples used, to the recent-Justin-Vernon-ish vocal effects, to the dreamy vibe that seems cohesive throughout all ten tracks, It Happensdefinitely happened to me, as they say.
And hey, we're family!
Corey Kilgannon – The Hollow II
I experienced Corey's performance for the first time this June. He opened for me at a house show in Nashville, Tennessee. My gosh. I wished his set would never end. I kept thinking, why in the world am I headlining this show? Corey's voice is captivating in a way that calms and saddens and comforts all at once, and the intimacy that his set gifted a house jam-packed with over eighty silenced people was, quite simply, beautiful.
I've listened to Corey's music a hundred times over since I discovered it that night in June. It was the soundtrack to my Fall. I'd listen to it on our drives, staring out the window and watching the country pass by. On most nights, I'd fall asleep to it. The Hollow II is haunting. A few of Corey's Audiotree Live sessions feel - to me - very much like hearing Conor Oberst sing protest songs for the first time, and perhaps that's part of the appeal. The sad comfort this album evokes feels like growing up, and the freedom of honest creation, and the sympathy that some words and some chords can be, together, sometimes.
I really, really enjoy it. Musically, it comforts. Lyrically, it provokes. Corey worked with my friend Andy Hoffman of Ledges, who I met through Mark Brower (one of our Fraction members), on a current, favorite song of his: Narcotics. A few months after having met Corey, I was going through old emails and trying to follow up with people when I discovered a message from him that I missed, inviting me to be a guest on song he was finishing at the time. I'm still kicking myself for overlooking that. At any rate, I'm stoked on this record.
Gang Of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness
Over the last almost-year of Fraction, I've gotten myself acquainted with a dude from Australia, named John Blackley. I've featured him on my blog before, and love seeing pictures of the postcard-perfect coastline sunsets he'll post to our private Facebook group from time to time. John was the one who introduced me to Gang Of Youths, as I asked for music suggestions, and he was excited that Go Farther In Lightness had just come out.
Those of you who actually make / take the time to read through a post as long as this likely know enough about me to know that I'm a huge fan of clever lyricism, double entendres, and theologically-driven and/or religiously-influenced language and criticism (both constructive and deconstructive). And – you know – I've got impeccable taste (even though my wife begs to differ). Gang Of Youths seems to have managed to create a work that feels both flawless and, somehow, effortless in each of these areas. The band's vocalist, David Le'aupepe, intrigues me from the start for his history with Hillsong Church in Sydney, and the ease by which he uses - or misuses, depending upon your perspective - biblical language throughout the album. His cadence both pries and respects, and he is a poet in the truest sense of the word. His analogies, and the pictures he paints, take you somewhere. They instill longing inside of you, the kind that might be defined as joy, which, according to Lewis, as I've just recently read, is synonymous.
If any song on this record takes the cake as best, it's "Persevere." The weight. The language. The bare-knuckled gut punch into all of the faces that Tragedy makes. The questions, and the hopes we hold onto in their midst. I've read that this song was written about a couple who lost their child. Some of my best friends lost theirs this year, and I can't help but think of them when I hear the line: "Nothing tuned me in to absurdity as fast as a gravestone with the name of a baby that has passed..." and I see my friend burying his daughter on a plot of land just north of Albuquerque, not far from where he buried his father a few years prior to that, and I can't begin to comprehend it...
Here are some of the best lyrics of the year:
I couldn’t count the times I’ve ragged on heaven
As an opiate invented by the weak
It’s an argument I hate 'cause I’m content to love the fates
But it comes up a lot with Emme’s dad and me
So I’m shotgun in the car and we’re just shooting the shit
And predictably, the talking turns to God
So I throw him forty lines how I don’t think he exists
And he just smiles and takes a dignified pause
Says, "It’s okay to feel unbelievably lost"
But God is full of grace and his faithfulness is vast
There is safety in the moments when the shit has hit the fan
Not some vindictive motherfucker, nor is he shitty at his job
What words to hear
And I’m a mess by now
'Cause nothing tuned me in to my failure as fast
As grieving for a friend with more belief than I possessed
"It’s not some disembodied heaven," he assured me
Then he laughs and says through tears
"You got to persevere"
Brand New – Science Fiction
Including this record in my Top Albums list seems almost taboo at this point in time, but here it is. Brand New Vocalist Jesse Lacey's indiscretions – publicized over the last few months alongside the rest of the world's men ousted for charges of sexual misconduct – came as a disappointment. I've been exploring some of the implications that news like this has for audiences who have otherwise enjoyed the music, movies, and contributions made by their recently blacklisted creators, and I've written extensively and (so I hope and so I've been told) respectfully on behalf of the victims of the kind of blatant abuse of power that Jesse has since acknowledged and apologized for. The arguments surrounding whether or not his apologies are forced, or sincere, or diversions, or acceptable grounds for continuing to enjoy the music his band creates are conversations for a different time and place, let alone platform and medium (probably, for instance, using actual voices to talk to actual faces in the actual presence of other actual people). I'm not going to apologize for including the album here, but I would be more than happy to discuss any qualms with whomever may have them, because I believe that discussion is valuable and necessary and even possible to bring a variety of perspectives into for one-another's betterment and growth and understanding, including mine.
That said, I woke up one morning this Spring, saw that Brand New was releasing preorders for their final album, and spent thirty bucks on the record before I'd been awake for thirty seconds. This, and avocado toast, is why millennials don't have any money.
I’m a fan. Have been since Jonathan Orner introduced me to Deja Entendu which, I think, continues to be their best, but Brand New’s entire catalogue is, in my opinion, impressive. There’s not an album I don’t enjoy. Some of my Fraction members asked me to make a first to last list of their discography... I think Deja is top, The Devil and God..., Science Fiction, then Your Favorite Weapon, then Daisy (not to mention other EPs, leaked songs, etc).
I thought this was a hilarious infographic for the Brand New repertoire:
Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile To The Surface
Manchester Orchestra will forever hold a piece of my heart. On the night I met my best friend, Jonathan Orner introduced me to their debut album, I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child, and I've paid homage to Andy Hull's writing multiple times in the lyrics I've written since.
I've had some funny experiences with the band, too. In 2011, I was writing for HM – a music magazine based out of Austin, Texas – and we decided to run a cover story on their record, Simple Math. When the editors gave me the story, I was ecstatic. Their previous albums played like soundtracks to some of my favorite seasons of life up to that point, and Simple Math left me full of questions for the band - questions I'd finally be able to ask a lyricist I'd admired for years. The interview between Andy and I was all set up when, perhaps thirty minutes before the call, Manchester's publicist informed me that I'd be talking to their bassist, instead.
Honestly, that's totally fine, but being a lyricist who was told that he'd be interviewing a lyricist, I'd focused most of my questions on... lyrics. It was still fun chatting with Jonathan Corley, who was playing bass for them at the time, but I remember, at one point, him telling me, "You know, these are probably questions that would be better for Andy..." and I just thought, "Yeah, well, obviously."
Anyway, that's a story that has nothing to do with this record, but I will say that this record is my favorite the band has released since Simple Math, and maybe even since Mean Everything To Nothing. I enjoyed Hope (and may have written about it in a previous year's "Top Albums" list) but Cope was too busy for me, personally. Manchester's always done such a great job of introducing us to their work, visually, and the videos for A Black Mile To The Surface didn't disappoint. They feel as creative as ever, and more intimate than ever. The record is dynamic, an invitation to simultaneously hope and brood alongside its characters, inside their storylines.
Plus, seeing Julien Baker post a bunch of stuff about how she climbed up that tree to hang from it for the cover art was just great. Speaking of Julien Baker...
Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights
So here's the deal: Julien Baker is, I believe, deserving of every single opportunity that she's been given, and worked so hard for, throughout these last few year's worth of - for lack of better words - blowing up. The woman is incredible. I met Julien in Memphis probably seven years ago, when her band – The Star Killers (now Forrister) – opened for one of my shows in a basement venue called The Abbey. It's laughable to me now, thinking about her opening up for me. But it's amazing the way that excellence shines. Every time we'd go through Memphis, I hoped that The Star Killers would be on the bill. They were my favorite local band I played with during all of my touring years, and plenty of my friends and other artists would say the same. Have said the same. I know because we all tell one another about how great they were/are whenever the topic arises.
When Julien's solo EP, Sprained Ankle, dropped, I listened to it over... and over... and over... and over again. It held the purposefully underproduced quality and emotion of an early Bright Eyes recording and – as Bright Eyes is my favorite band of all time – that bode well for my listening ears. Julien is a no-holds-barred kind of lyricist, but she writes in such a way that even her most abrasive imageries pull you in rather than push you away. She is honest, with vocal chords full of conviction. She presents herself as a person who is for, rather than one who is against, forgiveness and solidarity evidenced in the ways that she continues to invite people to sing along to songs of dissent or songs of worship, or both, or the subtler ways that old hymns sneak their way into piano arrangements as a bookend to - or a breath of hope amidst - so much anguish.
Turn Out The Lights is an example of craftsmanship every bit as gorgeous as Julien's work has ever been. My favorite experience with the record, thus far, was at four a.m. on the 101, northbound from LA to Santa Barbara, California this Thanksgiving. We had just come off a full-U.S. run with a bunch of bands and drove across the country to make it in time for the holiday with my family. Brandi was sick and passed out in the back of the car, and I had this record on repeat for hours. With nothing else to do but keep my eyes on the road, the time served to function as intentional - an opportunity to soak up the album and pay it the kind of attention that feels less and less frequent than the way we consume (and by that, I literally mean chew up and spit out) most music today. I love big cities, so driving through Los Angeles beneath streetlights blurred by heavy eyelids, enjoying record – and that alone – by one of my favorites, felt surreal, and lovely.
My favorite lyrics left me laughing to myself in the car for how beautifully put they are:
“...grit my teeth and try to act deserving, when I know there is nowhere I can hide from your humiliating grace.”
Kendrick Lamar – Damn.
The word "damn" might actually be all that needs to be said about this record. When it came out, I jumped up and down in my living room and acted like an idiot and turned the music up so loud that no one in the next room could hear themselves talk. DNA. drops so hard, and rolls straight into my favorite song of 2017: YAH. I love how vibey that track is. It was fun watching the world blow up when Kendrick released Damn. The way everybody speculated about whether record another would follow on its heels, or played tracks backward, or argued about whether it was genius or lazy to use Times New Roman for the cover font.
I've counted Kendrick an educator since I discovered his work, and dive into just about everything I can find re: his process, or his purpose, or the ethic behind and flowing through his art.
I had the chance to see Kendrick live twice this year, which is crazy. First, at Coachella this spring. Craig Gross took his son and friend to the festival, and gave me a ticket and an invitation to join them for it. I wrote about the whole weekend, which you can find here in the Fraction archives, but the long-and-short of it is simply that I never even dreamed that kind of production existed, let alone experienced it, before Coachella. It was insane.
A few months later, following Craig and Jeannette's 19-year wedding anniversary celebration in Vegas (where I was officially written off by many as apostate for drawing a pentagram on my chest in what felt like a true cherry on top of the rest of my goth costume), Brandi and I joined the Gross boys and two of our friends in LA to see Kendrick perform with Travis Scott at Staples Center. Brandi loves rap more than most people I know, and I love taking her to shows for the artists that she loves. There's this thing that happens in her eyes when she's excited, and it was like there were stars inside of them that night. It looks like wonder. Like being a kid again who can't help but take it all in, muted by the extravagance of the event, and overwhelmed but doing your best to take it in.
Brother Cephus – Not That Important
Here's another artist / album that I didn't discover until the whole year was almost over: Brother Cephus. A few months back, in Tampa, FL, my friend Joel Davis asked me if I'd heard the band his brothers started. I've known the Davis family for years through the music scene and Come&Live! – the record label that Ascend The Hill and myself shared. But, I hadn't yet heard Gabe and Seth's latest project.
I don't have as much of a history with their work as with some of the other projects I've written about here, so I feel insecure about not being able to articulate their craft with the same kind of appeal, but perhaps that's just as well. There's no bias to pull from – I simply love the album. I know it's generally frowned upon to do comparisons like this, but I get some Colour Revolt vibes here and there that take me back to high school, and listening to Mattresses Underwater in my car, heated in a snowy parking lot, burning incense on the dash (yes, I burnt candles and incense in my car, always, in high school). Those are good memories, and Not That Important feels evermore important for being able to pull them to the forefront of my mind. I love the slow, driving, not-quite-lazy-but-chill-vibes (good Lord I'm butchering this) the record offers. Is drug-rock a genre? It feels like it should be. It is, as they say, intoxicating.
They're playing a show soon with one of my favorite Nashville bands - Bandit - and I feel like that'd be a great one to go to, just in case somebody in Nashville reads this, and is otherwise out of the loop. Get off your Nashville butt and put on your Nashville boots and walk out your Nashville door and do something very unusual for the people in Music City: go to a show to listen to music.
Well guys, I think that's it for now! My gosh these always take me so long to write but they're always so fun to come back to at the end of each year. And I know that thirty seconds after posting this, I'm going to kick myself for who I forgot, or who I didn't have time to write about, but I just recorded the audio version of this recap for my Fraction Members, and it literally took thirty minutes! Haha. It's becoming a private, weekly podcast, apparently. So I guess time is a good constraint, anyway. It's fun.
I'd love to hear some of your top records! Please respond below with them, yeah? (You don't have to write novels like I end up doing, but it'd be cool to hear about even one or two records / artists that you loved this year.)
Have a wonderful (and safe) New Years Eve, everyone!