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. The countdown ends here and now…
#2: Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2 – 18 songs / 64 minutes / Released as two albums, May 5th & December 1st
This country music masterpiece was released as two separate albums, but given that the total time of these albums is just over an hour and the fact that the material was recorded at the same studio session I consider it to be one album. After the extraordinary success of his debut, 2015’s Traveler, the so-called sophomore slump was certainly due. Chris makes it clear here that there will be no slump, sophomore or otherwise. The music throughout is riveting, with your standard (read: genuine, not the poppy bullshit that passes for much of country music today) country sound and healthy doses of electric guitar including a few noteworthy solos that would fit in on any rock album.
Chris’s voice and delivery is reminiscent of a young Travis Tritt (in my opinion, which is what you get on these pages, folks), and his songwriting and energy remind me of Sir Garth’s emergence thirty years ago – but with less showmanship and slightly more songwriting talent. Yep, I said it. There are just too many good songs here for me to talk about each one. Plus I have to save room to gush at length about the #1 album without you glazing over and closing the page. Basically, what I am saying is, if you are open to country music at all (and I am not necessarily a country fan, but I sure recognize when it is done as damn well as it is here), give this thing a spin. You will not be disappointed.
Lead single and first track on Volume I “Broken Halos” is a solid if not incredible effort, but it paves the way for the slew of top-notch songs that follow it: A fantastic cover of Willie Nelson’s “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, and Stapleton originals “Second One to Know”, and “Up To No Good Livin’”. On “Second One to Know” Chris pleads to his lover that if she “ever decides to leave my love behind, just let me be the second one to know”. I thoroughly enjoy the sad stoner ballad “Them Stems”, where Chris laments being out of weed and without a dealer, who is out of town. He complains “this mornin’ I smoked them stems, ya that’s the kind of shape I’m in; I’m in a bad, bad way again, cuz this mornin’ I smoked them stems”. First word problems, country style.
Volume II is just as worthy, with nine more songs that show Chris didn’t cherry-pick for the first volume. Singles “Millionaire” and “Scarecrow in the Garden” are both solid tracks, with the former explaining how love is more precious than gold and Chris is lucky enough to have a lot of it in his life. My favorite would be “Midnight Train to Memphis” complete with its outlaw vibe and great electric guitar sounds. The album closes out with “Friendship”, a fantastic if maybe a little cheesy ballad about a good friend and the gift that true friendship really is. Bottom line: this is the best record of the year that isn’t the result of a deal with the devil (more on that shortly…) and it is evidence that Chris Stapleton (along with Sturgill Simpson and maybe/hopefully Midland) intends to keep legitimate country music alive. Cheers to that!
Key Tracks: “Midnight Train To Memphis”, “Second One to Know”, “Up to No Good Livin’”
#1: Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – 13 songs / 74 minutes / Released April 7th
Usually, this is a difficult enterprise. You see, I have been doing a Top Ten albums list – and taking it far too seriously, I might add – since using a whiteboard in my apartment shared with All-American hero Bobby Moore during my college days circa 2002, and I almost never know going into the process which record will be the winner. Well, this year, it sort of fell in my lap sometime in early April. Nothing since has even threatened the crown… Even if you don’t make it through this post, go check out this album. Preferably in a quiet, dark room, with your complete, undivided attention. Listener beware: This is music about and for the lyrics and songwriting. There are no dance-pop basslines, no arena-ready anthems, and no warm and fuzzies heading your way.
Ah, Josh Tillman. This absolute domination, tour-de-force, textbook example of brilliance in songwriting starts with the title track, in which we hear Josh’s take on humanity and all of its (apparently) hilarious flaws. I have sent the entire song’s lyrics to several of my friends, as I am quite sure that this is one of the all-time great songs anyone has ever written, but I will avoid doing that here. I only ask that you go to Spotify or your music venue of choice, queue up this song, tell everything and everyone around you to shut the hell up for 6 minutes, and listen to every word that he has to say. From the ridiculousness of being born with our brains and skulls unformed to our obsession with religions that few people seem to live by or actually believe in to our intense desire to accumulate capital at the expense of future generations to the absolute bullshit clowns that we consistently elect to represent us, this guy is taking no prisoners.
I have repeatedly joked that sometime about six years ago, a talented but un-remarkable musician named Joshua Tillman met the devil himself somewhere in Los Angeles and made a deal with him: you will now be America’s greatest living songwriter, and all that is asked in return is your mortal soul. Frankly, I very likely would have taken that deal also. And I am grateful that Josh did. His run as Father John Misty is still too young to compare with the greats of the previous era (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon), but it is well on its way to achieving that kind of greatness. If you are unfamiliar with FJM/Josh Tillman, this is his third consecutive masterpiece, following 2012’s Fear Fun (my #8 record of that year) and 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear (top album of that year). To put it plainly, he is more than happy to call his fellow human beings on our bullshit, with minimal arrangements and catchy tunes to back up his biting, snarky, but completely spot-on lyrics. And, somehow, each release has surpassed the previous effort. I will say it now: he cannot possibly top this. (Gauntlet laid, Josh…see you in 2020.)
“Total Entertainment Forever” begins with one of the more shocking lines of the record, as Josh describes “bedding Taylor Swift, every night inside the Oculus Rift; after Mr. and the Mrs. finish dinner and the dishes” (For those unaware, the Oculus Rift is Facebook’s virtual reality product). This intentionally offensive lyric is meant to prove his point: we live in a world where everything is on-demand, in real-time, and available in virtual reality. For just under three minutes, easily the album’s shortest song, he tells the tale of a future generation that discovers our “modern-day” rubble and ponders how happy we all appear to have been, all cozily hooked up to our satellite TVs and cellular phones. “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” spins the yarn of a successful overthrow of the rising tide of technology, advancement, and expansion, yet still manages to come full circle as the cycle of invention and growth only beings again. “Ballad of the Dying Man” laments a dying man’s last day, spent more concerned about his Facebook news-feed and all the haters and hipsters that he won’t live to rate and analyze than actually living (this is not subtle, folks. Put down your GD phones and try living for a day).
“Birdie” is a long-form poem to a bird Josh was watching one day, as he attempts to compare the two organism’s lives. “Life is just narrative, metadata in aggregate” he sings, adding that when “the enigma of humanity is wrapped up finally, that as they say is that. Oh, that day can’t come soon enough, it will be so glorious. When they finally find out what’s bugging us”. Depressing? Maybe, depending on your view. Deep, I think so. Cause to sit and think for just a moment about how we live our lives and whether or not we are “wasting it all”, as Jim Morrison said nearly 50 years ago? Absolutely.
“Leaving LA” is, as Josh puts it half way through the 13-minute genius rambling, “some ten-verse chorus-less diatribe” described as “new shit that really, kinda makes me wanna die”. This is his coup-de-gras, in which he laments the waste of time and potential that we all are, as the world’s end is (in his opinion) imminent. So many great lines are thrown around casually that this song is almost criminal in its depth of songwriting skill. There is ammunition here to fill not only multiple songs but fucking albums, and he just spews them all out, one after another. Many listeners will not be able to make it through this epic song, as he readily admits in the song itself, but for any of my readers who cherish music for what an artist is trying to communicate, this is rapture-folk-rock at its absolute, no-holds-barred finest. To select just a few terrific lines from this song, here goes: “If you want ecstasy or birth control, just run the tap until the water’s cold; anything else you can get online, a creation myth or a .45; you’re gonna need one or the other to survive, where only the armed or the funny make it out alive”. “So why is it that I am so distraught? What I’m selling is getting bought; at some point you just can’t control, what people use your fake name for, so I never learned to play the lead guitar; I always more preferred the speaking part, besides there’s always someone willing to, fill up the spaces that I couldn’t use”. “My first memory of music is from, that time at JC Penney’s with my mom; watermelon candy I was choking on, Barbara screaming ‘someone help my son’; I relive it most times the radio’s on, that ‘tell me lies, sweet little white lies’ song; that’s when I first saw this comedy won’t stop for, even little boys dying in department stores”. I will never forget where I was when I first heard that last line, with its sharp imagery and terrific association.
Sadly, if I write about every song on this record, literally no one will be reading at the end. So, notes on two more fantastic songs on the second half of the album: “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” and “The Memo”. On the former, over a catchy as hell yet so simple that even I could play it piano riff, we travel along as the God of Love returns to see his creation and is, inevitably, severely disappointed to see what has become of it. “Barely got through the prisons and stores, the pale horse looks a little sick; he says ‘Jesus you didn’t leave a whole lot for me if this isn’t hell already then tell me what the hell it is’. And we say, it’s just human, human nature; this place is savage and unjust. We crawled out of the darkness, and endured your impatience, we’re more than willing to adjust. Now you’ve got the gall to judge us?” Wow. I mean, seriously, wow. Who the hell wrote this? “The spider spins its web, the tiger stalks it’s pray; and we steal fire from the heavens to try to keep the night at bay. Every monster has a code, one that steadies the shaking hand; and he’s determined to accrue more capital by whatever means he can. Oh, it’s just human, human nature, we’ve got these appetites to serve. You must not know the first thing, about human beings; were the Earth’s most soulful predator. Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored, oh my Lord. We just want light in the dark, some warmth in the cold; and to make something out of nothing sounds like someone else I know”. Holy, holy shit.
Finally, the abject genius of “The Memo”. Over three absurdly descriptive and biting verses, and a bizarre Siri-esque robot bridge, Josh explains how he (as a proxy for humanity) will exploit the masses for his own good. Just listen to this song, trust me. A couple of favorite lines include: “Oh, caffeine in the morning, alcohol at night; cameras to record you and mirrors to recognize. And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time; Narcissus would’ve had a field day if he could’ve got online” and “Gonna buy myself a sports team, and put ‘em in a pit; I’m gonna wage the old crusade against consciousness; all I need’s a couple winners to get every loser to fight in it. Keep the golden calf, just need the bullshit. And they won’t just sell themselves into slavery, they’ll get on their knees, and pay you to believe”.
Key tracks: “Pure Comedy”, “The Memo”, “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”