In 2017 I listened to over 250 new albums, and considered roughly 70 of them to be worthy of repeated listens. Of those, the 25 best were selected for consideration to be named the greatest album of the year. Here is the countdown of the top ten…
#7: Justin Townes Earle – Kids in the Street – 12 songs / 42 minutes / Released May 26th
Being the offspring of a music legend is probably pretty sweet. Unless you decide to embark on a musical career yourself, and then have to contend with the doubters and relentless comparisons to your namesake. While not in the same stratosphere of pressure as Sean Lennon or Jakob Dylan, Steve Earle’s son has been crafting folk-influenced rock and roll for a decade now, and he can hold his own just fine. He has moved completely out of his father’s shadow and is a songwriting force all his own. His work continues to improve with each release, seemingly gaining confidence and ease on every album. Easily his most rewarding effort to date, Kids in the Street is chock full of short and sweet down to Earth songs about Justin’s take on women, life, and memories.
There are a few heavy and emotional songs, such as the title track and its longing for the days of old, “What’s She Crying For” which features Justin pondering just what could be troubling a pretty gal he is enthralled by, or “Same Old Stagolee”, his version of the traditional murder ballad “Stack-a Lee”. But the true gems are his easy-going, almost tongue in cheek songs that feel both flippant and powerful.
Take this line from the lead single “Champagne Corolla”, when he defends a woman’s modest car choice: “I don’t care what no man say, she can run a week on just one tank. Goes to show ya, maybe baby got a head on her shoulders. She sure looks sweet riding by in that champagne Corolla”. That is some simple yet clever songwriting. Or his preference in women, as explained on the incredibly straightforward track “Short Hair Woman” “I don’t want a woman puttin’ no curlers in her hair, that type of woman spend too much time in the mirror. I need a short-haired woman but I can find that just anywhere”. Great song, although I do not share his opinion on the matter…
Perhaps my favorite song on the record, “Trouble Is”, tells the tale of a man who would be doing well if he weren’t up to no good and features this gem: “Next door lady always giving me the evil eye, she says she don’t like me, won’t tell me why. Says she feels she need to watch me day and night. Only trouble is, that bitch is right”, finished with an audible chuckle. A song that really grew on me after repeated listens (like almost all good music does, but that is for another post on another day) is the album closer, “There Go a Fool”, which is third/first person tale of a man down on his luck, explained in two terrific verses. All in all, this album is worth your time and I hope that if you are not familiar with him that you will check it out.
Key tracks: “Champagne Corolla”, “Trouble Is”, “There Go a Fool”
#6: David Ramirez – We’re Not Going Anywhere – 10 songs / 39 minutes / Released September 8th
In truth, this one came at me by total surprise. I was only slightly aware of Mr. Ramirez, the acclaimed Americana songwriter from Houston, before this year. I had heard a few songs off of his previous record, Fables, and found them to be fine but not spectacular. Thankfully, I was made aware of the singles “Stone Age” and “Time” from this record because Spotify recommended them to me as they were released. (Thanks again, Spotify algorithms). By the time We’re Not Going Anywhere was released a couple of months later, my expectations were considerably elevated. Safe to say, this thing did not disappoint.
David is a songwriter on top of his game, unafraid to call us out in the process of baring his soul, as he does on the must-listen tracks “Twins” and “Stone Age”. “Twins” is an oblique reference to the Twin Towers and he asks us where we were when we swore we would never forget, alluding to his opinion that most of us have done just that. He sings of the loss not only of life but of liberty on that day, saying repeatedly “There she goes, goodbye America”. Powerful stuff, and subtle enough that the song survives on its own merits even if your politics don’t lend to his way of thinking. “Stone Age” describes what he sees as the deterioration of our society caused by our obsession with modern technology and apathy to what is happening around us. Two great lines from this song that sum up his feelings about 2017: “Well honey do you mind if I move in with you, while my fellow patriots work out Civil War II?” and “Give me your tired, your poor, your masses longing to be free. The homeless, tempests tossed, send them all to me. All the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. And I’ll blow out their flame and show ‘em the Goddamned door”.
Elsewhere, David laments on (what seem to be) his own personal struggles with loneliness and boredom on “Time”, singing that he has nothing but time, and unfortunately his friends don’t. Maybe he will go catch another matinee, maybe he will drive back to Houston, or perhaps he will just go get drunk. “Watching from a Distance” is a fantastic letter to someone he can no longer speak to but still cares about, and includes one of my favorite turns of phrase of the year: “Like the clock on your wall, like the cheap seats at a concert hall, I’ll be watching from a distance”.
There are a few low points, including a song that I feel never really goes anywhere (“People Call Who They Want to Talk To”) and the forgettable “Villain”. However, the bulk of this album is so strong that overlooking a couple songs is very easy to do, and it is deserving of both its place on this countdown and your time.
Key tracks: “Stone Age”, “Twins”, “Time”
#5: Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins – 11 songs / 48 minutes / Released August 18th
One of my favorite bands on the planet today, Grizzly Bear are tough for me to categorize. They are artsy, to be sure. Their music is incredibly pretty with sweeping melodies and the downright gorgeous voice of Ed Droste countered with the still lovely but more “normal human” crooning of Daniel Rossen. Their music is also challenging and sometimes bizarre, with ever-changing beats, synths, and plenty of instrumentation. Couple this with lyrics that are oblique and often difficult to decipher and you have something that to me is unlike anything else in pop/rock music right now. I first discovered them when they served as the opener on Radiohead’s In Rainbows tour, just as they were seemingly finding their footing. These guys have truly harnessed what they do and have “taken it to 11” with their last three releases.
Painted Ruins is not simply more of the same, although it is somewhat similar to the two amazing preceding albums, 2009’s Veckatimest (my pick for #1 album that year) and Shields (#2 on my 2012 list). They are continuing to add layers to their sound, almost to the point of it being too busy for digestion without multiple listens. This record is one that definitely takes some marinating: at first listen I was disappointed, as I had fallen in love with the simpler and more straightforward sound found on much of Veckatimest and Shields. However, once I really got to know this thing, I cherish it. Of all ten albums on this list, this one is probably least likely to win over a skeptical first-time listener. Don’t let that deter you, if you are a fan of artists doing something interesting and different, that is often downright beautiful in its somewhat complex and jarring nature.
The lead single, “Mourning Sound”, is classic Grizzly Bear, with its relentlessly pounding beat and pretty vocal harmonies. The chorus features Daniel singing that he “woke to the sound of dogs, to the sound of distant shots, and passing trucks. We walked with the mourning sound, it’s the sound of distant shots, and passing trucks” while Ed harmonizes behind him and later says that “this isn’t a place where I can even survive”. Ah, living in the city.
“Neighbors” is another gem, and has the prettiest chorus on the record, where we are told that “face to face, we’ll watch our bodies break, not a care in the world, that’s the way you play”. On the album closer “Sky Took Hold”, prepare for a piercing and remarkably ear-worming riff that makes its first appearance about 45 seconds in and continues to dazzle with each repetition. Overall, while not their best work, this is a truly great band that is clearly still experimenting and growing their sound, and with very positive results. This is some damn good action, my friends.
Key tracks: “Mourning Sound”, “Neighbors”, “Losing All Sense”