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…
#4: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built the Moon? – 12 songs / 48 minutes / Released November 24th
As half of the indelible 90s Brit-pop/rock group Oasis, Noel is near and dear to my heart. When that epic band inevitably broke up after years of public spats between the talented and petulant brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher, many were heartbroken. It turns out that this may not have been so terrible after all, as we now get twice the Oasis-esque music, since both brothers are now releasing incredibly good solo music – when they are not publicly trashing the other’s albums or calling each other cunts, that is. While Liam went on to form another group called Beady Eye, to middling results, and has just last year finally gone solo (to great results), Noel went immediately to his solo project/group, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Three records in, he has hit the jackpot. This is the most pop/bass influenced music he has released, and I was initially disappointed in the slight change in sound. However, after multiple listens I absolutely love it.
Who Built the Moon? starts slow and gets progressively better as the album rolls along. While the first two singles, the danceable, pseudo-instrumental tracks “Fort Knox” and “Holy Mountain”, are certainly solid songs, they don’t hold a candle to what is in store on the second half of the record. The bassline behind “It’s a Beautiful World” is hypnotic and seems to continually pound the listener as Noel croons about what a beautiful night it is to dance in the moonlight.
Things really get going when “Be Careful What You Wish For” starts and that immediately catchy riff gets going. Complete with *chick-a-pah* vocal tics, this is some seriously catchy action. The song is clever with its repeated warnings that even when you think you’re winning, “the man” is always going to hold you down. Lyrics like “they’ll let you see their riches, never tell you what you’re worth” and “they’ve given you the keys son, but you’ll never find the door” are representative of several nice turns of phrase on this track. “If Love Is the Law” is back to the classic Oasis sound, with its supremely catchy melody and sing-along chorus. We are even treated to some electric harmonica, which is almost always a nice addition.
The two standouts of this record, and of Noel’s entire catalogue, are the two closing tracks (ignoring the fine but not noteworthy interludes). From the first bar of “The Man Who Built the Moon” it is clear that there is no screwing around here. By the time the main keyboard riff is piped in, I was hooked. Then, Noel comes in with his snarling and haunting vocals, and there is no doubt why this is the title track. This is four and a half minutes of pure gold, my friends. “You and I, the spider and the fly, will meet where the shadows fall”. Give me more of this!
On the closing track, recorded as a one-off acoustic take at a studio session in Dublin after the record had already been finished, is one of the finest songs I have heard in some time. His impassioned promise to never leave his love is unique, captivating, sincere, and seriously moving. The verses are also excellent, but the chorus “So don’t walk away love, there’s never enough, that could make me crash on the broken glass; Let the storm rage, I’d die on the waves, but I will not rest, while love lies dead in the water” is about as good as it gets. The accompanying moody/mellow piano does nothing but accentuate the passion and force behind Noel’s strumming and subdued but almost screamed words. One of the finest songs recorded in 2017, this song doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album’s vibe, but it is a fantastic closer. Ridiculously, the beginning of this track is Noel asking the studio techs if they have enough time for another take. Yes, Noel, if this is what you want us to hear, there is all the time in the freaking world.
Key Tracks: “Dead in the Water”, “Be Careful What You Wish For”, “The Man Who Built the Moon”
#3: Queens of the Stone Age – Villains – 9 songs / 48 minutes / Released August 25th
What a long, strange trip it has been for Josh Homme, the only constant in the twenty year run Queens of the Stone Age have been on. Josh has fronted the band, written the bulk of the songs, played lead guitar (while contributing several of the more popular riffs of the past two decades), and given us his spot-on snarling rocker lyrical stylings, while rotating a cast of characters around him. Former members/contributors include Nick Olveri (that story is a post in and of itself), Mark Lanegan, Dave Grohl, Brody Dalle, Alex Turner, and even Sir Elton John. Josh has also fronted the desert-rock behemoth that was Kyuss, dabbles in Eagles of Death Metal with buddy Jesse Hughes (aka Baby Duck), and led super-group/side project Them Crooked Vultures. He is a busy and super-talented bastard, that Josh. Side note: if you love rock, check out Them Crooked Vultures. Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, and John Paul Jones. Yep. Seriously. That happened. And it is as good as you are hoping.
A funny thing happened along the way: QOTSA went from being a riffs-only rock group to a full-fledged musical behemoth. Don’t get me wrong, these guys are one of my five favorite bands on the planet in part because of their back catalogue and ability to out-guitar riff anybody else (and it’s not even frickin’ close). Their eponymous debut, sophomore record Rated R, and superstar-status earning monster that was Songs for the Deaf are all examples of slimy, beautiful guitar rock and stand among my favorite albums of all time. 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze showed some more depth, and foreshadowed things to come. After the mostly forgettable 2007 release Era Vulgaris, which felt like a forced return to their debut, they have put out two incredibly solid and deep records: 2013’s …Like Clockwork (my top album from that year and the band’s first to reach #1 on the Billboard charts), and now this masterpiece.
Like the record proceeding it, the guitar riffs on Villains take a backseat to a more complete sound which includes focus on superb drumming and more overt synths. Without question, the guitar riffs are still there, but they largely more subdued, and that is surprisingly a nice change. There is more here to digest, and Josh seems to be growing in his confidence with this new iteration of the band. The only misstep on this record is the immature and clunky “Head Like a Haunted House”, which features lyrics that are meant to be clever but really aren’t worth me repeating here. Having said that, each of the remaining eight songs are solid and achieve an almost immediate classic status.
Josh has always been a fan of embedding intros and outros into his songs, and that trend continues here. After a minute of buildup/white noise, the opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” finally kicks in and grabs the listener. This track fades out and we are greeted with the opening riff to “The Way You Used to Do”, which is textbook QOTSA. This one was selected to be played on the terrestrial airwaves for a reason: it kicks ass and doesn’t take too much marinating to “get it”. Next up is a true highlight of the record, the plodding and tasty “Domesticated Animals”, in which Josh tells us to “get right up, and sit back down, a revolution is one spin ‘round”. Ya, when he says it, it sounds way cooler. That is just what he does, folks.
On the incredibly cleverly named “Un-Reborn Again”, Josh tells us that we “could be young again, I know, be un-reborn again; a skull, frozen in pose, locked up in amber eternally; buried so close to the fountain of youth I can almost reach”. Maybe you have to hear it to get it, but this is some captivating music. Several people I have bantered with about this record claim that the synth-heavy “Fortress” is their favorite, and I can see why.
This album closes out with two fantastic six-plus minute songs, the crunchy-guitar single “The Evil Has Landed” and the epic ballad “Villains of Circumstance”, on which Josh sings “close your eyes, and dream me home; forever mine, I’ll be forever yours; always, ever more, and on and on” in complete sincerity. This is as close to a love song as they are going to get, and it sure is lovely. Music like this is why I have no doubt that this band can sustain themselves for quite a bit longer, and we are all lucky to have them/him around. Thanks, Josh (and crew).
Key Tracks: “Domesticated Animals”, “The Way You Used to Do”, “Un-Reborn Again”